Against the odds

‘Possible, but daunting’: Inside Nikolai Vitti’s early effort to transform Detroit’s battered public schools

Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti prepares for a TV interview on Detroit's RiverWalk in August 2017, before the start of his first school year at the helm of the district.

Three months after taking on one of the most daunting tasks in American education, Nikolai Vitti was having a fit over pizza — $340,000 worth of pizza.

Vitti, Detroit’s new school superintendent, had just discovered that the district had set aside that eye-popping sum of money last year to pay Domino’s Pizza for what he assumed were hundreds of thousands of slices for parties in schools.

He was asked if he wanted to do the same for next year.  

“Do you really think for a minute I’m going to bring a contract to the board at $340,000 for Domino’s?!” he asked an aide. “That would be like — ‘Here — write a front page story about how inefficient this district is.’ Are you insane? Are you really insane!?”

In his first months on the job, Vitti had seen what he described as a shocking lack of basic financial and academic systems in the district. He’d seen contracts that were nonsensical, payments that had slipped through the cracks. He knew of principals who’d apparently given up on getting support from the district and had turned to a brand of survivalism to get what they needed for their schools.

“It is truly a district that has been mismanaged for over a decade,” he says.

But even by the standards of what he’d seen so far, the pizza contract seemed extreme.

“I love the explanation on why we need a Domino’s contract because it’s wholesale, right?” Vitti vented to an aide. “To reduce the price? And then everything else we do we have 700 vendors?! We decided to get it right for pizza but we didn’t get it right for toilet paper?”

But a day later, something surprising happened with that pizza contract.

As Vitti convened a meeting with top advisors, he learned that the Domino’s contract was not actually for parties. It was for a special pizza that Domino’s had created for schools called a “smart slice” that uses whole wheat flour and lower amounts of fat and salt to give kids a healthy alternative to less-popular lunch offerings.

That’s when a contract that Vitti had been lambasting for days became an inspiration.

“If we’re using Domino’s as a way to incentivize kids to eat … then why not do a bid for Chinese food?” he asked.

“Or Subway,” an aide suggested.

“We could get local businesses,” Vitti said. “A ton of local businesses! As long as they meet the nutritional value. … Think of all the things we could do with a Detroit small business connection to it!”

In fact, Vitti said, “if we really want to talk big, in every high school, you could have kids that are working to prep food and all that.”

“See,” he told his advisors gathered in a conference room adjoining his office in the district’s headquarters in Detroit’s iconic Fisher Building. “We went from Domino’s to a complete conversation about innovation. That’s why you have to have the conversation.”

* * *

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti leads a meeting of advisers in a conference room adjacent to his office in Detroit’s Fisher Building in August 2017.

Improving on pizza contracts might not seem like the kind of thing that can fix a school district like Detroit’s.

The schools here, which have some of the lowest test scores in the country, have become a national symbol of educational crisis. They remain the largest roadblock to the city’s resurgence nearly three years after its emergence from bankruptcy. The heralded improvements in the city’s downtown have had virtually no effect on its schools.

But Vitti, the 40-year-old father of four who took over the Detroit district last spring, has promised not just to improve the district’s 106 schools. He says he can transform them.

“We’re going to make this the best urban school district in the country,” he says in speeches and interviews.

He knows the odds are stacked incalculably against him — he felt it on the first day of school, when the system had 250 teacher vacancies, despite his public commitment to fill every position.

But he’s determined to give Detroiters something they haven’t had for their schools in a generation. He’s promised to give them hope.

If he’s going to do that, he says — or if he’s at least going to make some progress in that direction — he has to look for ideas in places like pizza contracts, where other leaders might see little potential for change.

He has to move beyond what he calls “compliance thinking” where decisions are made only to conform with legal requirements, to try to imagine a different future for the district.

And he has to do that while simultaneously attempting to bring order to a system that he describes as in total disarray.

Much of that disarray is well known: buildings that are crumbling and dirty; a severe teacher shortage that has robbed children of quality instruction; conditions so dismal that a federal lawsuit last year alleged they violate Detroit children’s right to basic literacy.

The district’s reputation has been so ravaged among Detroit parents that tens of thousands of families have fled the district for charter or suburban schools in recent years — fueled in part by the liberal school choice laws in Michigan that were promoted by Betsy DeVos before she became U.S. education secretary.

The exodus of families had left the district in such dire financial straits that it only avoided bankruptcy last year when the state put up $617 million to create a new district called the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

But those are just the problems you can see from the outside. Vitti understood them well before he left his job in May running the schools in Jacksonville, Florida, to take over the schools in his hometown. [He’s from nearby Dearborn Heights.]

On the inside, Vitti has discovered that the district he’s inherited is utterly broken.

“I mean we lack the systems for everything!” Vitti says. “Everything! For hiring teachers, onboarding teachers, paying teachers, ordering books, adopting books, cleaning buildings, seeing contracts, what contracts there are, how they’re executed, why they’re executed, what they’re used for, what they’re not used for.”

* * *

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti takes a call in his office on the 14th floor of Detroit’s iconic Fisher Building.

Since arriving in Detroit last spring, Vitti says he’s seen “pockets of excellence” in schools where devoted teachers have managed to weather years of turmoil and decline.

But when he talks about the the district’s central office, he becomes visibly angry.

What makes it all so infuriating, he says, is that the men from whom he inherited the district were supposed to be financial experts.

The state of Michigan had seized control of the district in 2009, citing a financial emergency, and installed a series of financial managers — five different men — who ran the district for eight years until the new school board took over in January.

The loss of local control had been painful for Detroiters.

A school board chosen by voters had been rendered largely impotent while the men running the district had slashed teacher pay and shuttered dozens of schools with minimal community discussion. The closings accelerated enrollment declines — fewer than half of Detroit children remain in the district  — and left some city neighborhoods without any schools at all.

As an educator who worked as a teacher in North Carolina and New York City before entering a PhD program at Harvard University that trained urban superintendents, Vitti says he’s not surprised that the emergency managers didn’t get the academics right.

But you’d think they’d have figured out the nuts and bolts, he says.

“At a minimum, you would think an emergency financial manager would know nothing about education but would focus on systems and processes because that’s what Detroit lacked,” Vitti says. “And what I actually see is, you know, walking into this district, there was no vision for how a district or a central office supports schools.”

Example: The district promised bonuses to teachers who took hard-to-staff positions last year but, somehow, the bonus checks didn’t arrive when they were supposed to.

“It was frustrating,” says teachers union leader Ivy Bailey. “They were calling us asking, what’s the problem? And we didn’t know.”

The problem, Vitti learned, was that “the left hand had no idea what the right hand was doing. This was negotiated by labor relations. It was somewhat understood by HR but then finance wouldn’t know about it.”

Another example: Here in a district where the teaching shortage has meant children have gone months without a certified math teacher, people who applied for jobs weren’t getting hired.

“We had teachers, let’s say at the job fair, that had committed to joining the district,” Vitti says. “That teacher leaves the job fair thinking that they’re going to Denby [High School]. The principal thinks the teacher is going to Denby and then no one’s followed up with the teacher.”

The teacher eventually gets an offer from another district and takes that job instead, he says.

The examples go on and on.

The central office took so long to approve expenses that principals had taken to buying things on their own. That led to corruption and to inefficiencies that Vitti’s team is uncovering, like the seven schools that all used the same online learning tool last year.

No one negotiated a multi-school discount so every school paid full price, Vitti said. And the schools weren’t in contact to determine if a different program might have been better.

“We shouldn’t be using anything at just seven schools unless it’s a pilot,” Vitti told members of his cabinet as they gathered for a meeting in his office. “And if we’re going to do pilots, then they should be free and there should be a whole lot of principal buy-in as to why they’re being used.”

The last emergency manager, Steven Rhodes, declined to comment on the substance of Vitti’s criticism, sending a statement saying only that he wishes “Dr. Vitti and the entire staff at DPSCD the very best in meeting the challenges of educating its students.” The governor’s office and State Treasury Department, which appointed and oversaw the emergency managers, did not respond to requests for comment.

Cleaning up systems is essential if Vitti wants to take the district in a different direction, says Robert Peterkin, the Harvard professor who, for 20 years, led the urban superintendents program where Vitti earned his PhD.

“What he’s got to do is establish these basic procedures while educating all the kids,” Peterkin says. “I know that sounds impossible but these systems don’t have to be invented. …Those things are not rocket science. Recruitment of teachers. We know how to do that. We know how to have a contract system. We really do. We just need to have somebody who’s going to go out and get it done.”

But Vitti says the mismanagement infuriates him “because it limits what you can do now.”

“That not only hurt the city, it hurt children and it hurt public education and now we have to make up for the sins of the past while still moving forward and creating results, which is daunting,” he says. “It’s possible, but daunting.”

* * *

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti greets students participating in a summer math program at Wayne State University.

If Vitti is daunted privately, he betrays little hint of concern as he travels around the city.

He gives confident speeches and interviews  — typically from the gut, without using talking points or prep materials — that are filled with promises for the kind of wholesale improvement that seems unlikely in a nation where the box scores for urban superintendents show far more losses than wins.

He’s hardly the first superintendent to arrive in a city making grand predictions for the future.

“The idea of the school superintendent as the person who can fix it all is at least as old as the 20th century,” says David Cohen, a professor of educational policy at Harvard University and the University of Michigan.

But superintendents are largely powerless to address things like residential segregation and fiscal inequality that helped destroy urban schools in the first place, Cohen says. “The problems in [urban schools] have been created by decades of government policies …There’s no way that the educational problems in these systems can be solved by any particular superintendent.”

In Detroit, he says, the challenge is even greater. “Detroit just faces huge problems and many of them are not of the district’s making and are not within the district’s control.”

Yet Vitti says he plans to put nearly every waking hour he has into the effort.

He sleeps just three hours most nights, sometimes cranking out emails until 3 a.m. before catching some winks until dawn, he says. Other nights, he’ll go to bed early, around midnight, and wake up at 3 a.m. to respond to emails.

“We have to manage [the district] and transform the district at the same time and that requires a different work ethic and energy level,” he says.

Vitti doesn’t expect his aides or advisors to put in those kinds of hours, but he has little patience for anyone who isn’t moving with as much urgency as he is. He stacked his team with people he trusts to keep up the pace, firing dozens of longtime school officials and technocrats and replacing many with people he knew from his days working in Florida.

“Tick, tick, tick,” he chided an aide when she reported that she hadn’t yet made an important hire.

“I’m working, working, working,” she responded. “I thought I found somebody but they’re not interested.”

Despite his sometimes abrasive tone, Vitti is not outwardly combative. Unlike some superintendents who’ve blazed into districts on a promise to push out bad teachers or to jump start performance by shutting down schools, the words he speaks in Detroit are largely the ones that parents and community leaders want to hear.

He talks of the “whole child,” and finding ways to meet children’s social and emotional needs instead of just drilling them on standardized tests. He talks of “parent engagement” and community partnerships. And he and his wife have enrolled their four children — including two who have special needs — in a district school.

Vitti spent his first months in Detroit on a listening tour, meeting with parents, teachers, students and community leaders to assess the needs of the district.

When teachers complained that students were spending too much time taking tests, he reduced mandatory student testing. He also promised to raise teacher pay.

And he’s paying attention to what students learn, something that he says has been neglected. He’s pushing a district-wide curriculum audit to make sure Detroit kids are getting an education that meets national standards. And he wants a teacher evaluation system, based on research, that supports teachers and helps them hone their craft.

If Vitti is successful, the tone he sets now will be why, said Peterkin, the Harvard professor who helped guide Vitti through his doctorate.

“I don’t think that any modern superintendent can see themselves as a do-it-all, know-it-all, great man theory kind of leader,” Peterkin says. “He needs a team. He certainly needs the school board. He needs community support. He needs to not have anti-public school voices tearing him down. He needs strong parental support and a business community that wakes up and realizes it needs its public schools but I think he can lead that effort.”

* * *

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti typically doesn’t take notes in meetings.

In the three days that this reporter followed Vitti, he zig-zagged around the city, giving speeches, meeting with potential partners, and directing staff on everything from the best way to measure the condition of school facilities to whether or not a PowerPoint presentation for a school board meeting should have photos or bullet points.

He doesn’t take notes in meetings and yet seems to keep countless details about contracts, personnel — even the calorie counts of his favorite snacks — in his head.

And while he’s listening to briefings, he’s also searching around for new ideas.

During a meeting about creating internships for students at a district vocational school, he spotted the school’s slogan — ”where great minds are developed” — and pointed it out to a school board member, Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, who was sitting with him.

“What do you think about our logo for the district: Where Detroit Minds are Developed?” he asked her. “Or where Detroit Minds Matter? That’s a good one too. We’ve gotta figure that out.”

And as he met with the heads of a prominent local museum, he came up with an idea for an entirely new school.

The museum execs had largely wanted to discuss bringing more students to visit on field trips when they asked to meet with Vitti. He had immediately signed on, mentioning a “cultural passport” he hopes to create that would enable students to visit an opera, a symphony or great works of art in every school year. But he didn’t stop there.

Sitting in an office upstairs from the museum’s exhibit halls, a grander, more ambitious idea seemed to pop into his head.

“What about a deep partnership with a K-8 school?” Vitti asked. “Something similar to a magnet school?”

The museum and district could team up on “deep training for the principal and teachers,” he said.

The school could build on the museum’s exhibits to teach art, history and other subjects.

“Imagine everything our students could experience!” he said.

The museum execs seemed stunned — but delighted — by the proposal.

“We would love that!” one exclaimed.

There are countless logistical and practical details that would have to be worked out before a school like this could be created.

It’s too early to tell whether Vitti has the political skills and financial resources to take any of his ideas beyond the concept phase. The fragile nature of the discussion is why the museum officials asked not to be publicly identified with such a preliminary proposal.

And no matter what he does, Vitti is operating in a tenuous environment. The school board supports him now, but could eventually turn on him. The state has stepped out of Detroit’s school operations, but a new governor could step back in. Those things have happened repeatedly in this city before.

But, in that moment, this idea — and that different future — seemed entirely possible.

“Terrific!” the museum executive said. “This is exactly the kind of work we want to do!”

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti consults with Luis Solano, the district’s new chief operating officer, on a new system to improve school building maintenance. Solano is among people Vitti knew from Florida who he’s recruited to work in Detroit.

 

 

 

choice and competition

It’s not just Detroit. Across Michigan, ‘active and aggressive’ competition imperils schools

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Eric Lupher of the Citizen Research Council of Michigan, Benjamin Edmondson of Ypsilanti Community Schools, Randall Davis of Albion-Marshall School District and Scott Menzel of Washtenaw County Intermediate School District testify before the Michigan Civil Rights Commission

Detroit is not the only district struggling with lower enrollment and other challenges related to competition from charter schools and surrounding districts. On the other side of the state, similar forces led to the Albion school district’s demise.

After years of declining enrollment, falling revenue, poor student performance and school closures in the district, the Albion district in western Michigan faced a difficult problem: How to keep the district from dying. The city of Albion had a large number of students, but many of them travelled outside the city to attend school, forcing the Albion Community Schools district to merge with nearby Marshall Public Schools in July 2016.

Albion’s story was one of many shared Monday with state’s Civil Rights Commission, which held its first in a series of public hearings Monday in Ypsilanti to hear firsthand about issues confronting school districts. Representatives from public policy organizations, school districts, as well as parents, educators and advocates from Detroit and around the state shared stories of hardships and difficult decisions they face.

The commission is charged by the state’s constitution with investigating alleged discrimination. It launched the hearings this week after learning from education experts that state schools are in crisis. The goal of the hearings is to determine if minority students and those with special needs have faced discrimination in the state’s schools.

Albion’s story came from Randall Davis, superintendent of the Albion-Marshall School District, who told commissioners he blamed what happened to Albion schools — a district that had primarily served low-income, African-American students — on a law passed more than two decades ago that allowed students in Michigan to attend any school in any district that would take them.

“Schools of choice decimated the schools,” Davis said. “They had three or four of our contiguous districts that were driving into their district picking kids up. It was active and aggressive….I believe that is not the intention of schools of choice, but that’s what happened.”

The hearing was not intended to focus on competition from charter schools and between neighboring districts, but many of the people who testified came from traditional district schools or from policy organizations, so much of the testimony centered on the consequences of choice in Michigan.

Individuals also came forward to raise various concerns about equity in schools. The commission did not hear from charter school advocates but the commission plans to hold at least two other hearings.

“We also open it up to anyone to offer their opinions,” said Vicki Levengood, communications director for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. “We encourage people on all sides to bring their messages to the hearings.”

The next hearing will be July 23 but a location has not yet been set, she said.

At the first hearing Monday, Benjamin Edmondson, Superintendent of Ypsilanti Community School District, painted the grim, poignant picture confronting him when he became the district’s school chief in 2015.

The Ypsilanti district lacked money to pay for services students needed such as social workers, homeless services, school safety officers, and washers and dryers. The district only managed to provide those services by partnering with the University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University and community colleges.

“Those partnerships are critical,” he said. “I don’t know how we would survive without those entities buying into the district.”

Edmondson said his district had lost 300 students before he arrived, costing the district nearly $2.4 million. That forced him to scrap advanced placement classes and meant he couldn’t pay teachers enough to fully staff his classrooms. Graduation rates were low and the district was swimming in debt. The district’s challenges were compounded by the fact it competes with the nearby Plymouth-Canton Community Schools district, which enrolls more than 17,000 students. “We were David and Goliath,” he said.

The district also faces a “strong charter school presence,” he said, recalling a charter school representative who came vying to purchase a vacant district building. He said he felt threatened by the potential buyer’s ability to automatically take 300 students from the district.

“Here I am a new superintendent with a new school board and I just want to paint the story,” he said. “In 2015, we had declining enrollment, white flight, poverty, low expectations, low wages, high debts and priority schools, neighboring charter schools, and a state takeover threat for our schools.”

This year, Edmondson said the district is improving but still facing daunting challenges.

With population declines and fewer students in districts, even with consolidated districts, Michigan’s districts are too small, Eric Lupher of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan told commissioners. He said it means school districts from around the state are struggling because they are losing so many students to surrounding districts.

For example, he said Ypsilanti Community School District is continuing to bleed students to Ann Arbor, Plymouth-Canton and other districts. Ferndale schools are gaining almost 800 students from Oak Park and Detroit schools, but is losing about 350 students to districts further from city line such as Royal Oak and Berkley schools.

The issue isn’t limited just to southeastern Michigan, he said, pointing to Wyoming Public school district, about five miles from Grand Rapids, which has lost students to nearby Jenison and Grand Rapids.

“It’s a bigger issue, and it’s a lot bigger than just consolidation,” he said. “It’s the choice we’ve offered. I’m not here to speak ill of choice, but it’s creating issues we’re not dealing with.”

The eight commissioners listened intently through the six-hour hearing at the Eagle Crest Conference Center, Ann Arbor Marriott in Ypsilanti, occasionally asking questions.

Commissioner Jeffrey Sakwa at one point expressed sympathy for the superintendents. “You guys are in a tough place,” he said.

While Michigan once had nearly 600 school districts, Sakwa said, that number is shrinking.  

Sakwa blamed competing school districts as a primary reason for the changes.

“It’s like Burger King, McDonald’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken all on the corner trying to steal everybody’s lunch every single day,” he said.

PHOTO: By Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Helen Moore

About 20 people from Detroit, Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor spoke during the public comments portion of the hearing. Among them was longtime Detroit education advocate Helen Moore. “Don’t play games with us,” she told commissioners over applause that sometimes drowned her words.

“You know the discrimination we have received as black people and our children. You know that during slavery it was against the law to read. This is what’s happening to our children now.”

 

Dropped charters

Detroit board members decide not to renew charter, leaving 3 schools and 700 students in limbo

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Earl Phalen founded Phalen Leadership Academies, a fast-growing network of charter schools that could have to scramble following a Detroit school board decision.

Three Detroit charter schools face renewed uncertainty after two school board panels voiced opposition to renewing their contracts.

Murphy, Trix, and Stewart academies were removed from the city’s main district by the state in 2012 and placed into a state-run recovery district that converted them into charters. They remained charters when the recovery district dissolved last year and its schools returned to the district. 

Now the schools managers that run the three schools must find a new backer — and perhaps move into a new building, too.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s position has been clear for months: The main district competes with charter schools for teachers and students, he says. It shouldn’t spend its time overseeing them.

Dealing with district-authorized charter schools “is not a priority,” he told board members at a public meeting on Monday morning. “The lift is so heavy right now with our own schools, that one second not spent on our schools seems to be… a lost opportunity.”

But when Vitti brought the issue to the board in November, the board didn’t come to a decision.

Facing an uncertain future, some district-authorized charter schools chose to find other backers. But the organization that operates Murphy, Trix, and Stewart — an Indianapolis-based charter network called Phalen Leadership Academies — held out, hoping the school board would grant the schools more time.

On Monday, board members on two sub-committees decided not to do that. They agreed not to renew the schools’ charter, which is set to expire in June, meaning the issue will not go before the full board.

Sonya Mays, chair of the finance subcommittee, declined to support the renewal of the schools’ charter despite concerns that the transition could be turbulent for students there.

“My primary concern is not having the academic experience of those students disrupted,” she said.

Dozens of universities and school districts authorize charters in Michigan, and Vitti expressed confidence that Murphy, Trix, and Stewart, which together enroll more than 700 students, will be able to find an authorizer elsewhere. Phalen Leadership Academies contacted at least one other charter authorizer about a transfer, but did not submit the requisite paperwork. Creating a new charter can take much of a year, but officials at Central Michigan University, the authorizer contacted by Phalen, said a three-month turnaround is not impossible.

Earl Phalen, the organization’s president, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

For LaMar Lemmons, who joined Mays in opposing the charter, the issue was clear-cut.

“They were basically funneling our children into the charters,” he said of the state officials who spun off the former district schools into independent entities. “Those students walk to school to Trix. We would immediately absorb 90 percent of those students.”

But the district likely won’t be able to open a school on Trix’s building for a couple of years. Vitti wants to renegotiate the lease on the district-owned building with Phalen’s organization, saying it was “very generous.” If those talks fail, the district would regain control of the building, but Vitti says the buildings are in poor repair.

Starting a new school could pose a challenge for a district already racing to fill nearly 200 open teaching posts by next fall. The building already has many buildings that are far from fully occupied.

“I don’t want to start the school year with 25 vacancies at one school,” said Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, who also opposed renewing the contract.

It will be years before the district can get out of the charter business entirely. Three of its 10 remaining contracts don’t expire until 2022 (see below for a full list).

Without a means of exiting those agreements, the Office of Charter Schools, which oversees the district’s charters, won’t close its doors any time soon. Indeed, even as the finance subcommittee spoke out against renewing charters for Trix, Murphy, and Stewart, it approved $4,000 to send district employees to training for charter authorizers.