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.


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?”

Play nice

How can Michigan schools stop skinned knees and conflict? Use playtime to teach students kindness

PHOTO: Amanda Rahn
Macomb Montessori kindergartner London Comer plays with a ball during a Playworks session at her school.

Kindergartners play four square, jump rope and line up in two rows with outstretched arms to bump a ball during recess. What’s unusual is that the four- and five-year-olds don’t fight over balls or toys, and when one child gets upset and crosses her arms, a fifth-grade helper comes over to talk to her.

This is a different picture from last spring, when the students at the Macomb Montessori school in Warren played during recess on a parking lot outside. The skinned knees and broken equipment were piling up, and school administrators knew something needed to change.

“Recess was pretty chaotic, and it wasn’t very safe,” Principal Ashley Ogonowski said.

The school brought in Playworks, a national nonprofit that uses playtime to teach students how to peacefully and respectfully work together to settle disagreements — also known as social emotional learning, said Angela Rogensues the executive director of the Michigan Playworks branch.

Ogonowski said the change she has seen in her students has been huge. Kids are getting hurt less, and teachers have said they have fewer classroom behavior problems.

The program teaches better behavior through physical activity. Games focus on cooperation, not winners and losers. When tensions rise on the playground, kids are encouraged to “rock, paper, scissors” over conflicts.

Playworks is adamant that their coaches are not physical education teachers, nor are their 30-45 minute structured play periods considered gym class. But the reality is that in schools without them, Playworks is the closest many kids come to receiving physical education.

Macomb Montessori does not have a regular gym teacher, a problem shared by schools across the state and nearly half of the schools in the main Detroit district, and a symptom of a disinvestment in physical education statewide. In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified.

But with Playworks, the 210 elementary-aged children at the school have a daily recess and a weekly class game time lasting about 30 to 45 minutes.

Another benefit of the program is the chance to build leadership skills with upper elementary students chosen to be junior coaches. Shy kids are picked, as are natural leaders who might be using their talents to stir up trouble.

“I made it because I’m really good with kids. I’m nice and kind and I really like the kids,” Samerah Gentry, a fifth-grader and junior coach said. “I’m gaining energy and I’m having fun.”

Research shows that students are benefitting from both the conflict resolution tools and the junior coach program.

“The program model is really solid and there’s so much structure in place, I can’t really think of any drawbacks,” Principal Ogonowski said.

The program, however, is not free.  

Part of the cost is handled on the Playworks side through grants, but schools are expected to “have some skin in the game,” Rogenesus said. The program at Macomb Montessori costs between $60,000 and $65,000, but poor schools can receive a 50 percent subsidy.

The cost hasn’t prevented eight Detroit district schools from paying for the program. Rogenesus said she is talking with Superintendent Nikolai Vitti about putting the program in even more schools next year. He also identified Playworks as one organization that could be brought in to run after-school programs at a time when he’s rethinking district partnerships.

Part of Playworks’ mission is to work together with schools, even if they already have gym and recess in place or plan to hire a physical education teacher.

“PE is a necessary part of their education in the same way social-emotional learning is a necessary part of that education,” she said.

Building bonds

‘Trust is being built’ as foundation invests in programs to support Detroit parents and students

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Teacher Michele Pizzo and students Wajiha Begum, Iftiker Choudhury and Demetrious Yancy are closer since she's visited their homes

Anna Hightower didn’t know what to think when her daughter, Jasmine, wanted permission to invite her teachers to visit their home in October. But she pushed past her reluctance and nervousness, baked brownie cookies and opened her doors to two teachers from the Davison Elementary-Middle School.

She discovered a new world of information on being a better parent as a participant in the Detroit main district’s new initiative to empower parents, the Parent Teacher Home Visit Program.

It’s part of a sweeping initiative led by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which announced a three-year, $3 million grant Wednesday with the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The initiative also includes a parent academy which will serve 7,000 parents, and a summer camp for up to 900 pre-kindergartners starting in the fall.

It’s the first grant Kellogg has awarded as part of its $25 million commitment to a major initiative called Hope Starts Here that Kellogg, along with the Kresge Foundation, announced last fall. The two foundations plan to spend $50 million to improve the lives of the city’s youngest children. (Kresge and Kellogg also support Chalkbeat).

Hightower said she believes the home visits are helping set the direction for her daughter’s life.

“I see now that DPS is not just a school for my daughter, but also a GPS,” she said.  “They see where my daughter wants to be, they know the destination and give her the opportunity to see the different routes she can go. They encouraged me as a parent to foster her growth as well.”

By the time the first home visit was over, the new relationships got 12-year-old Jasmine planning to join the school math club, apply to attend Cass Technical High School and consider her college choices.

La June Montgomery Tabron, W.K. Kellogg Foundation President and CEO, helped design the initiative to help the city’s youngest citizens, but Wednesday was the first day she met program participants.

“It just brought tears to my eyes,” she said. “It’s real, it’s practical. These aren’t easy relationships to build, but they are being built and trust is being built.”

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said rebuilding the district must include making parents stronger advocates for their children’s education.

“Every parent cares about their child’s education,” he said. “The reality, though, is a lot of our parents don’t know how to navigate the system in order to advocate for their child every day. Some of our parents are intimidated by the system. Sometimes, parents are not welcomed by schools, principals and even teachers, and sometimes district staff.”

Parents, he said, also often are carrying heavy loads, working multiple jobs, and struggling to pay bills. While they’re navigating everything, they are challenged to put their children and their  schooling first.

He said he envisions a “critical mass of parents” in every school who will hold the district accountable for its performance: They will demand certified teachers. They will understand how to help their child get a higher SAT test score, complete a financial aid application and help their children become better readers.

“All of this, I probably would say, is part of the greatest reflection of what I want us to be as a district,” he said.

Parents will be able to take classes on topics such as resume writing, scholarships, and college placements tests. The Parent Academy training will be held in schools, libraries, community centers and places of worship across the city.  

Michele Pizzo, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher at Davison, said volunteering to visit homes has become personal for her.

She’s gained weight eating four- and five-course meals of samosas, biryani rice and rich desserts prepared by families in the school with a majority Bengali student population. She’s made new friends while visiting with her students’ parents, and she better understands her students and feels she knows them better.

Since the fall, when the program was in its pilot stage, she has visited 30 parents after school and on weekends — all in homes except one.

“We try to make the parents feel as comfortable as possible. We walk in, give them a hug, kissing on both cheeks, and there’s a huge meal that takes place,” she said.  “They are able to open up to us, and even if they couldn’t speak English, their child translated for us.”

For seventh-grader Iftiker Choudhury the home visits have made him and his family closer to his teacher.

“I get along with the teacher more, and it’s like very friendly now,” he said. “I’m comfortable now and I talk to her more. My parents knowing her, it creates a bond in all of us.”