the hot seat

Five minutes in the hot seat: For Detroit school principals, there’s ‘nowhere to hide’ in new district data chats

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti (center) has been summoning district principals to discuss their schools at "data chats" attended by their colleagues and bosses. "This is the work," Vitti said. “You’re constantly problem solving. You're surfacing issues … and you’re looking at data to make decisions.”

Taking her seat at the end of a long table, the leader of a Southwest Detroit elementary school was clearly rattled by the bad luck of having been called first.

“Good morning,” she said, as she glanced down at her notes, then up at the colleagues and bosses who stared back at her from around the hot and crowded room.

“Sorry, I’m very nervous,” she said through a shaky voice before launching into a list of facts about her school.

Enrollment is up and student behavior is trending in the right direction, she said. But reading scores are down and more than half of her students missed enough days of school last year to be considered “critically” absent.

Also, she said, the city’s teacher shortage had made it tough for her to fill three vacant teaching positions this year, and she had only found long-term substitutes for two of those jobs. That means that in addition to having far too many students with no access to a qualified teacher, she’d had classrooms with as many as 47 6th and 7th graders for months.

“We’re very happy that we are no longer parents’ last choice of where to put their child,” she said, referring to her school’s higher enrollment. “But I want to be able to provide the proper environment.”

Listening as she gave that assessment of her school’s challenges were more 30 other principals from the Detroit Public Schools Community District, most of the district’s top administrators, and a man, sitting on the opposite end of the table, who could fire her if he doesn’t like what he hears: Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

Since taking over the Detroit schools in May, Vitti has been busy assembling a team of advisors, overseeing the creation of a strategic plan and trying to rebuild some of the operational systems that he says were dismantled during the years when the district was run by state-appointed emergency managers.

The principal sessions, which he calls data chats, are part of his first major effort to improve the quality of instruction in classrooms.

The goal, Vitti told the principals who, one by one, have taken a turn at the end of the table in recent weeks, is not to criticize school leaders, or to shame them over problems they can’t fully control.

The goal is to figure out what schools need — and find ways for the district to support them.

“I don’t want you to feel on any level that this is an ‘I got you,’ Vitti told a roomful of anxious principals before the start of a recent data chat. “This is another step in trying to improve the relationship between the school district and schools. This is about creating a culture with a focus on performance.”

And principals will not be the only ones on the hot seat. The data chats will take place several times a year, he said, sometimes with principals presenting and other times with district officials at the end of the table.

“No one is going to want to come into this room at the beginning of February and know that a principal asked for something and there was no response,” Vitti said.

The sessions, he said, are a way to sharpen the focus of everyone who has a hand in educating Detroit’s district students.

“This is the work,” Vitti said at the end of a marathon session earlier this month that began at 8 am in a 10th floor conference room in the district’s Fisher Building headquarters and didn’t end until long after the sun had set. “You’re constantly problem solving. You’re surfacing issues … and you’re looking at data to make decisions.”

Principals reported they were nervous before presenting data on their schools to a room crowded with district educators including Superintendent Nikolai Vitti (right). “It forces everyone to be honest about the work because everyone is in the room,” Vitti said.

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Vitti used a version of data chats like these in Miami and Jacksonville, the two Florida school districts where he worked before coming to Detroit, he said.

The idea came initially from Rudy Crew, the superintendent Vitti worked for in Miami. Crew had been schools chancellor in New York City in the 1990s where he saw the police department use crime data to deploy resources through a program called CompStat.

CompStat, which is often credited with the steep decline in crime rates in New York that began in the 1990s, tracks surges in car thefts, assaults and other crimes by neighborhood, time of day and other factors. Police commanders from across the city are then summoned to regular CompStat meetings to explain what’s happening in their precincts and what they’re doing to respond.

Vitti said he worked with Crew to develop data chats in Miami, then brought the concept with him to Jacksonville when he became superintendent of the Duval County Public Schools.

As he starts them in Detroit, Vitti said, the chats looks somewhat different — at least for now.

While in Florida a complex school grading system based on multiple layers of test score data had forced principals to “become more savvy about student performance, analyzing data, talking through school improvement strategies,” Detroit principals aren’t as used to diving deeply into student data, Vitti said. The culture of “analyzing data, talking about your data,” he said, has not yet taken hold.

That was evident during a data chat session attended by Chalkbeat. Several principals said their schools had seen an increase in test scores this year when, in reality, their scores had climbed just one or two percentage points — a change so small it might not have much meaning.

“We have to be careful with that,” Vitti told one principal, stopping her presentation to address the room. “Sometimes when we see a 1 percentage point increase, a 2 percentage point increase, sometimes that’s not statistically significant.”

Since the students who took the third grade reading test last year are not the same kids who took it this year, “that can artificially change your increase or your decrease so we have to become more mindful of those factors,” Vitti said.

That doesn’t mean Vitti was critical of principals who made those claims.

“It’s really not fair to have a principal sit there and me grill them on very specific performance-related issues because the culture wasn’t established to build capacity and hold people accountable,” he said.

It also wouldn’t be fair to expose principals at their first data chats to public scrutiny, he said. That’s why Vitti set ground rules allowing this reporter to attend the chats only if she agreed not to identify principals in connection with their presentations.

Principals attending the session said they had been worried when they heard they would have to present in front of a room full of other principals.

“I have to admit I was nervous, you know having that dream where you’re coming in with bare feet,” said Gina Brown who leads the Ronald Brown Academy, an elementary-middle school on the city’s east side. “But I think it’s an excellent process because it gives me a chance as a principal to sit back and really learn something about what other schools are doing. I’ve been taking copious notes.”

The district had been led in recent years by five different emergency managers, including some Brown said she rarely heard from. She welcomed the chance to have an open discussion about her school.

“To have the deputy superintendent and the superintendent sitting right here is really helpful,” she said. “All the main players are sitting at the table.”  

And principals in the room could get immediate responses to some of their concerns — if not necessarily a swift resolution.

As school leaders mentioned problems — like one who said the hole in her school’s roof was threatening to damage computer equipment, and another who said her students were in “dire need” of workbooks in multiple subjects and grades — Vitti pressed the district officials charged with meeting those needs for a response.

“It is empowering, I think, for principals to be in a room with their peers but also to have the ear of the superintendent and the cabinet to say, ‘This is working, this isn’t working,’” Vitti said. “So it’s accountability on multiple levels … It forces everyone to be honest about the work because everyone is in the room.”

“In this room,” he told the principals at the start of the session, “there is nowhere to hide — for the principal and the cabinet.”

 

* * *

With so many school leaders in the room, Vitti used the opportunity to poll principals on a range of subjects.

He asked the heads of elementary-middle schools whether they want to continue serving kids in so many grades or if they’d prefer separate elementary or middle schools (most wanted to stay the way they are). He asked princals who mentioned high suspension rates if they’d want to create in-school suspension programs rather than send students home for poor behavior (most liked that idea). And he asked whether principals like requiring students to wear uniforms (most said they do).

Each principal officially had five minutes for his or her data chat — measured by a timer projected on a screen behind Vitti in the conference room — but the timer was paused whenever Vitti or other officials stopped to ask questions or make comments. That meant most principals presented for between 10 and 20 minutes.

Vitti asked principals what they’d like their schools to become — part of his push to give every school in the district a unique identity that could give families a reason to enroll.

Several said they wanted a science and technology focus. One principal asked for a focus on foreign languages, while some asked for arts programs.

“We could become the “Frida Kahlo School of the Arts,” said one principal who thought the name of that iconic Mexican painter would attract the Mexican families in his school’s neighborhood.  

Vitti questioned principals who had been successful in filling teacher vacancies about the tools they had used for recruiting (most said teacher word of mouth was their best bet). He asked a principal who had reduced chronic absences how she had done that. (She raised money for a washing machine so kids who had been staying home for want of a uniform would have something clean to wear to school).

And he noted that many princials had discovered the same thing in their testing data: that their scores on a test, called the MAP, which measures how well individual students are improving academically from one year to the next, had been going up, while their scores on the state’s standardized M-STEP, which determines whether kids are performing at grade level, had dropped.

“Like everyone else I’ve seen today, my scores are surprisingly low,” one principal said. “We seem to fare much better on the MAP in every subject area. Why there’s that disconnect, why they don’t do better on the M-STEP….”

Vitti cut her off.

“I’ll just tell you what the answer is,” he said. “The answer is that MAP is not aligned to the Common Core Standards at the highest level, which means it’s not aligned to the M-STEP… so MAP is giving you a false read.”

The fact that the district had been using MAP test results as a factor in teacher and principal evaluations in recent years could explain why so many schools had been struggling with the M-STEP, Vitti said.

Vitti encouraged principals to hold smaller-scale versions of these chats in their own schools.

“It’s a way to rally everyone around a common goal,” he said. “You then create a culture that’s focused on data. Everyone knows where individual children are … and everyone is rallying and being strategic.”

School leaders might be reluctant to put their teachers in the position of having to discuss their students in front of their peers.

But educators are all in the public eye and should know how to explain their work, he said.

“This may feel like you’re on the hot seat for five minutes but the reality is all of you are on the hot seat all the time,” Vitti told principals. “You are all dramatically responsible for what happens in your building every day. I’m on the hot seat all the time, whether that’s with the media, whether that’s parents at a community meeting, whether that’s board members, or the legislature, I’m constantly having to talk about what happened in the past, where we’re going, and what that looks like.”

The data chats, he said, are about about raising the standards for kids.

“This really is about 360 degrees of accountability,” Vitti said. “When we look at this data and we see where our children are at, we all know that they can do better. If we don’t start changing the way we operate and the way we work as schools, as a district … then why are we here?”

Cut off

Michigan’s third-grade reading law could penalize bilingual programs

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Elementary schoolers in an English class at Academy of the Americas in Southwest Detroit. More than 70 percent of third-graders at the school could be held back starting in 2020.

The grocery store down the street from Academy of Americas blasts Mexican pop music over the radio. A few blocks away, a taco truck takes orders in English and Spanish. On the Academy’s playground, third-graders go about the business of play using whichever language happens to land on their tongues.

Back in the classroom, kindergartners learn to add, subtract, and find the United States on a map using Spanish. Third-graders sit through English class, then walk across the hall for science class with a teacher who addresses them only in Spanish.  The school, like the Southwest Detroit neighborhood that surrounds it, is truly bilingual, and it has the support of parents and experts who argue that “language immersion” at an early age helps English- and Spanish-speakers effectively learn two languages for the price of one.

But dual-language immersion programs like this one are about to run smack into a controversial state law. Beginning in 2020, third-graders at Academy of the Americas won’t be able to move on to the fourth grade until they pass a state reading exam — in English.

Critics have raised a wide range of questions about the 2016 law, which would have caused nearly half of Michigan students to be held back a grade if the law took effect last year.

But perhaps most puzzling is that a law designed to improve literacy in Michigan could penalize the small handful of programs with a track record of teaching students  — especially English learners — to read in not one, but two languages.

When 89 third-graders at the Academy took the test in 2016, only a single student met state standards. If the law had been in effect, almost every one would have repeated the third grade.

While the school is among the most highly sought programs in the district, the low reading scores were not terribly surprising. Kindergarten classes at the academy are conducted in Spanish for 90 percent of the school day. By the third grade, students hear  Spanish for 60 percent of the day. Experts in bilingual education say students in such programs typically fall behind their English-only peers in reading, then catch up around middle school.

But under state law, third-graders in Michigan’s roughly 10 bilingual programs could be held back anyway.

“I can’t wrap my head around it,” said Norma Hernandez, the district’s former director of the Office of Bilingual Education. “Our kids are going to be left behind.”

Academy of the Americas was founded by Hispanic parents determined to help their children hold on to their native language. Learning English, they knew, was both inevitable and necessary in the United States. But why couldn’t a school also help children master the language spoken at the family dinner table?

As it turns out, dual-immersion schools like the Academy are backed by solid research showing that students who learn more than one language from an early age tend to catch up to their monolingual peers in English reading. This holds true even for students who speak Spanish at home, and it also helps them maintain their native language. More than 1,000 similar programs are in place across the country.

“They’re learning to read and write in both languages,” said Cecilia Jungo, a parent at the school, speaking in Spanish. “They’re totally bilingual,” she added.

Earlier this month, folders were propped up on every desk in a third-grade social studies classroom at the Academy, forming a barrier in case students felt tempted to scan their neighbors’ tests. As some began to fidget, the teacher slipped in a vocabulary lesson.

“If you are already finished with the test,” she said, speaking in Spanish, “just put your head on the — what?”

“The table!” the students shouted — also in Spanish.

In the hallway outside, Principal Nicholas Brown said that this minilesson will eventually improve the students’ performance on language tests, in English as well as Spanish.

“We’re teaching kids to read and write,” he said. “When they learn to read in Spanish, they are able to transfer those skills to English, so that when English is introduced they’re able to attack it.”

He admits that this approach won’t pay dividends on English reading tests right away, but says they will catch up by middle school.

But this model of reading is “not the same theory that the lawmakers were adhering to when they developed the law,” said Paula Winke, a professor at Michigan State who studies bilingual education. Legislators pointed to a different body of research — studies showing that students who don’t learn to read English well by the third grade are less likely to graduate high school.

Both models may hold some truth, Winke said, but the law only makes room for one. The learning patterns of bilingual students, well-established by researchers, were apparently “not considered,” she added.  

Researchers at Michigan State are studying how the law will affect all students in immersion programs, including native English speakers. But they have already concluded that third-graders who speak English as a second language could be held back at disproportionate rates. According to Winke’s analysis of previous years’ test data, some 70 percent could be flunked.

Those projections are forcing dual-language programs to make tough decisions, especially when most of their students arrive in kindergarten speaking a language other than English.

Escuela Avancemos!, a charter school that stands only a few blocks from the Academy, offers some of its students a similar dual-language program. Kindergartners – most of whom speak Spanish at home — hear and speak Spanish for 90 percent of the school day. The proportion of English rises in each subsequent year.

But thanks to the reading law, that could change. “We’ve had to play around with those percentages,” Principal Sean Townsin told Chalkbeat during a school visit last month. “We’ve had to tweak it a little bit, especially in anticipation of the third-grade reading law.”

Townsin acknowledges that an extra hour or two of English instruction per day might not be enough to save his students from repeating the third grade. Last year, 39 of the 47 students tested in reading would have flunked. He also plans to assemble samples of students’ work, taking advantage of a section of the law that allows students to prove their reading ability to the state by submitting a portfolio instead of taking a test.

Brown, principal at the Academy, also plans to send portfolios to the state, but he won’t reduce the amount of Spanish students hear in class. He thinks the bilingual program is largely responsible for the school’s enrollment growth of 50 percent in the last two decades, no small accomplishment in a city where schools compete fiercely for students.

What’s more, he says parents would revolt if  he watered down the immersion program.

“At the end of the day, our parents are very clear” in their support for the program,” he explained. “The school was created as a direct response to a community need.”

The Academy was founded in 1992 by a group of Hispanic parents who wanted a school that wouldn’t alienate the children of Southwest Detroit from the language of their grandparents. They believed that hearing teachers and classmates speak Spanish would help students stay connected to their culture and make them more employable.

Brown, the son of a Venezuelan and a Louisianan, knew first-hand that in traditional schools, English can replace a student’s native language rather than complement it. He says he rejected Spanish as a teenager and refused to speak it for seven years, relenting only after a visit to Venezuela made clear that the language was a link to his family.

These days, when students say “hello” in the halls, he responds in Spanish.

But he knows that these students could soon pay a price for their bilingualism. Flunking a grade can have severe emotional consequences, and there is little evidence that repeating a grade is beneficial to a child’s learning in the long-run.

“If students are retained because they didn’t pass a reading test, that’s going to hinder their education,” said Diane Rodriguez, a professor at Fordham University who specializes in bilingual education. “If those legislators went to another country, and they were given three years to pass an exam in a second language, I’m wondering if they’d be able to pass it.”

Brown, for his part, is waiting for clarification about the law before it goes into effect in the 2019-2020 school year.

“I have more questions than answers,” he said, adding that he would like to see the law changed: “I hope the program will speak for  itself.”

Barring a change in course from the Legislature, his hopes rest with parents and with Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. Under the law, parents can request an exemption if their child fails the third-grade reading test, but the request must be approved by the superintendent for the child to move on to the next grade.

deysi martinez
PHOTO: Koby Levin
Deysi Martinez, president of the PTA at Academy of the Americas, says the state should test third-graders there in Spanish.

Parents at the Academy, however, argue that the state shouldn’t use its resources to grade student portfolios and process exemptions to the law.

Deysi Martinez, PTA president, noted that some states, like California and Colorado, allow students in immersion programs to prove their reading skills by taking additional reading tests in Spanish.

“In third grade, they’re reading mostly in Spanish,” she said of students at the Academy. “It doesn’t make sense for the test to be in English.”

Coming merger

‘We all became family.’ Students say goodbye to Detroit school after promising three-year run

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Mumford Academy Principal Nir Saar greets students on the first day of school in 2016.

The Mumford Academy’s future has been in doubt almost from its first day of existence.

The small school tucked inside the larger Mumford High School started with about 100 ninth graders in 2015, but soon faced a series of threats despite some early wins.

There was news in 2016 that the state-run recovery district that created the small school would be dissolved, and it wasn’t clear what would happen to the academy. There was the possibility in 2017 that Mumford High School, along with the academy inside it, could be shut down by the state after landing on a closure list because of years of poor test scores at the bigger school.

But ultimately, it was the issue of cost that doomed the school in 2018, with officials deciding it doesn’t make sense for a cash-strapped district like Detroit to pay two principals in a building that needs only one.

Despite a promising three-year run, the little school will close this week, leaving teachers and students to wonder if they’ll be able to hold on to the family-like community and strong academic achievements of the past three years when they merge with their larger sister school.

“In the academy, we all became family. That’s why we don’t get in fights,” said Trevor Bradley, 16, a junior at the school. “We all look at each other as brothers.”

The academy was part of an experiment by the state-run Education Achievement Authority to see what would happen if high school students were placed in a smaller environment that didn’t have the baggage of a school like Mumford, which had struggled for years.

“It’s really hard to turn around a low-performing school,” said Jack Elsey, who now runs the Detroit Children’s Fund but was the EAA’s Chief Schools Officer around the time the academy was founded. “Mumford at the time had 600 or 700 students. If you really want to re-orient the culture of a school to be about success … doing that with 700 students is a lot harder than starting with 100, and building a grade at a time over the years.“

Having a smaller school, Elsey said, “creates the kind of environment where you can really get to know every student, get to know their families and better serve them.”

The main Detroit district tried something similar a few years earlier when it broke Cody and Osborn high schools up into smaller campuses. But Elsey, who briefly oversaw Cody and Osborn as an assistant superintendent in the district, acknowledged that the district, under the control of state-appointed emergency managers, didn’t fund or support those efforts enough.

“When you start doing things like cutting funding and requiring the schools to share teachers and requiring them to share operational budgets, you start to chip away at the foundation of what a small school is,” Elsey said. “In a nutshell, anything that is not funded appropriately is going to fail.”

After all three Osborn schools landed on the state’s closure list last year, the district merged them into a single campus. Cody had one of its three schools on that list but the other two were added to a state watch list later.

The Mumford Academy showed signs of success in its first two years. It had the EAA’s highest attendance rate and the state-run district’s highest percentage of students meeting targets on tests that measure how much students learn from one year to the next.

In its third year, after the EAA dissolved and its schools returned to the main Detroit district, principal Nir Saar said SAT scores were encouraging.

Though state officials have not yet released SAT scores for Michigan schools, Saar said during the school’s end-of-year ceremony this month that he’d collected individual scores from his 11th graders — the first at the school to take the SAT. He learned that the school-wide average for the junior class was 822.

If this year’s SAT scores come in similar to those from the 2016-17 school year, an average score of 822 would put the Mumford Academy ahead of most Detroit high schools that don’t use selective admissions, such as Cass Tech and Renaissance.

If you take Cass and Renaissance out of the equation, the average SAT score for high schools that are now in the district was around 805 last year.

“This is how [Mumford Academy students] stack up” Saar told the parents and students assembled in the school auditorium for a celebration on June 8.

He flashed a bar chart on a screen that showed the school’s average SAT score rising above those of 11 other Detroit high schools.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Mumford Academy Principal Nir Saar flashed a bar chart on a screen at a school celebration that showed the school’s average SAT score rising above those of 11 other Detroit high schools. “The message for me is really clear,” he said. “If you have really good ideas and you have the right people to put them in place … you can achieve.”

“The message for me is really clear,” he said as he pointed to that slide. “If you have really good ideas and you have the right people to put them in place … you can achieve just about anything and achieve on par with schools that are selecting their students, that are in nicer neighborhoods and have better resources.”

What happens next for the academy’s students and teachers isn’t entirely clear.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told the school board before it voted on the mergers of Mumford and Cody last month that students from the different schools would be kept together even after their schools merge.

“They will take classes with each other and stay together, but under one school,” Vitti said.

Mumford High School’s principal, Angela Prince, said in a statement that since she took over the larger school in the 2016-17 school year, she has “been focused on student achievement and turning around what others had counted as a lost cause.”

At the end of the 2016-17 school year, she said, test scores showed Mumford students were moving in the right direction, and the school was named most-improved school in the EAA district.   

When the two schools merge, she said, academy students will stay with their same teachers but will have access to more electives than they did when they were at a small school. Entering 9th-graders will be separated into a dedicated 9th grade community that will provide extra support, she said.

“We pride ourselves at Mumford on developing a small family atmosphere and letting students know they are loved,” Prince said. “Our students will continue to excel and be successful, and show that it can happen in a comprehensive high school setting.”

Vitti said he’s not against the small school concept, which has been used extensively in cities like New York.

“There certainly was some positive impact regarding those smaller schools,” he told the board last month. “From a student attendance point of view, from a behavioral point of view and just an overall safety point of view. But one concern that was expressed by individual board members and myself was the large administrative costs linked to having multiple schools, with multiple administrators.”

Merging the schools, he said, would both reduce costs, saving $1.1 million a year at Cody, and between $735,000 and $825,000 a year at Mumford, and “create a clearer vision under one leader.”

Vitti said Saar and two of the Cody principals will be moved to other district schools and will remain principals.

What’s not clear for now is what will become of a leadership training program that had been taking place at the Mumford Academy.

Saar and his top advisors at the academy had been participating in something called the Team Fellows program, a $900,000 effort, funded by the Detroit Children’s Fund, to bring school management coaches from around the country to work closely with the leaders of three Detroit schools.

The idea is to help school leaders — including those who, because of Detroit’s challenges, have never worked in a high-performing school — better understand what has worked in other cities.

Elsey, who now runs the Detroit Children’s Fund, said Saar and his team were selected from among the leaders of 25 district and charters schools who applied to participate. The program started last winter and was supposed to extend through the 2018-19 school year.

Now, Elsey said, he’s not sure what will happen next. One option is to involve the leaders of the larger Mumford, but coaches could move on to a different school instead.

“We put schools through a pretty competitive application process,” Elsey said. “We need to know if that’s the right match.”

Parents and students at the academy say they’re worried about what next year will bring.

“I am upset and really sad about us losing a strong, three-year family because this academy is a strong academy,” said Jerreon Smith, a Mumford Academy junior. “I’m going to miss the environment. It’s most likely going to get lost.”

Jerreon’s mother,  Yolanda Johnson, said her son thrived at the small school.

“They get to know you. Your child is not just a number,” she said. “[Students] want to do well when they come into a classroom where they know that the teacher actually knows them, that the teacher will get on the phone and talk to their mother … not just when they’re not doing the right thing, but when they’re doing good.”

Still, Johnson said, she is hoping for the best.

“Hopefully,” she said, “the skills they’ve given them in the academy will be strong enough.”