Looming threat

Report: Looming financial threats could undermine ‘fresh’ start for new Detroit district

The creation of a new school district last year gave Detroit schools a break from years of crippling debt, allowing the new district to report a healthy budget surplus going into its second year.

It’s the first time since 2007 that the city’s main school district has ended the year with a surplus.

But a report released this morning — just days after Superintendent Nikolai Vitti took over the district — warns of looming financial challenges that “could derail the ‘fresh’ financial start that state policymakers crafted for the school district.”

The report, from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, notes that almost a third of the district’s $64 million surplus is the cost savings from more than 200 vacant teaching positions.

Those vacancies have caused serious problems in schools including classrooms crammed with 40 or 50 kids. The district says it’s been trying to fill those positions. But as it struggles to recruit teachers, it is also saving money by not having to pay them.

Other problems highlighted in the report include the district’s need to use its buildings more efficiently at a time when many schools are more than half empty. “While a business case might be made to close an under-utilized building in one part of the city, such a closure can create challenges and new costs for the districts and the families involved,” the report states. It notes that past school closings have driven students out of the district and forced kids to travel long distances to school.

The report also warns that if academics don’t improve soon, student enrollment — and state dollars tied to enrollment — could continue to fall.

Read the full report here:

 

Summer school

Detroit district adding grades K-2 to summer school to help youngest students boost reading scores

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

For the first time in years, the Detroit district summer school program will start in kindergarten.

District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti recommended younger school children, in grades kindergarten to second grade, be included in the summer school program at the academic subcommittee meeting Monday. The move is meant to help prepare young students for a new state law hanging over the district. The law will prevent third-graders who aren’t reading at grade level from advancing to fourth grade starting in 2020.

This is a daunting prospect in a district where last year about 10 percent of Detroit third-graders passed the state’s annual English Language Arts exam. Across the state, only 44 percent of third-graders passed the test.

“There will be a deep focus on literacy at the primary level which is also new, to get as many students ready as possible before the third-grade retention law that’s coming,” Vitti said.

With the law looming, many schools and districts across the state are scrambling to find ways to make sure their youngest students are learning to read. In the main Detroit district, efforts have included changing the curriculum for K-8 students and creating new reading programs.

The summer school announcement is the latest effort to prepare students for the upcoming law. Vitti even considered holding summer school for only K-3, but reconsidered after hearing community feedback.

“Listening to principals and teachers, there was a need to serve as many kids as possible to make sure they… are not falling behind,” Vitti said of the district’s choice to continue offering programs for older grades. For older grades, students are able to make up credit they failed to attain during the school year.

This summer marks the first time in years that middle-schoolers who are in danger of being held back will be able to repeat classes they failed in hopes of advancing to the next grade.

Vitti also recommended bus transportation for K-8 students and bus passes for high school students, a focus on literacy in grades K-5, and a focus on course recovery for grades 6-12. He plans to use assistant principals to run the program.

Using assistant principals has two benefits. It frees up principals to focus on filling teacher vacancies and it helps prepare the assistants to take on more duties to become principals themselves in the future.

“Because now principals are working 12 months and they are focusing on recruiting,” Vitti said, assistant principals will be expected to run the programs.

“It’ll allow them to get used to managing the building and dealing with issues of students and parents” to prepare them for principal positions, Vitti said.

Summer school will start on June 26 and run through July 26. Students will attend for four hours daily, Monday through Thursday.

This proposal will be voted on by the full school board next month.

Read through the proposals to the district’s summer school program below:

  • Strategic focus on K-5 students for skills development in literacy and 6-12 grade students in course recovery.
  • Students will attend their neighborhood assigned school, except for schools having major maintenance or being used for teacher training. Students from these schools will be given an opportunity to attend the next closest school.
  • Transportation will be provided based on corner stops for K-8 grade students. High school students will be provided bus passes.
  • The district and schools will combine Title I money, grants, such as the carryover grant from 21st Century, and private funding from community partners to support the summer program. Recreational centers will also be open.
  • Assistant principals will run summer school as principals recruit staff. Schools will be assigned clerical staff for enrollment, customer service, and payroll.

Stay tuned

As a global robotics competition descends on Detroit, few local students are included — for now

PHOTO: Getty Images

More than 15,000 junior engineers from around the the world are descending on Detroit this week for an international robotics competition.

Local students, for the most part, aren’t among them. Just one city high school qualified to send a team, out of more than 400 high school teams in the FIRST Robotics World Championship.

That could change in coming years, if Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has the impact he’s hoping.

“Robotics coming to DPSCD high schools in the fall,” he wrote in a tweet Monday afternoon. “New programming. Stay tuned!”

Vitti has promised a long list of new offerings to start this fall, when he begins his second full school year leading Detroit’s main school district. Dozens of schools have started robotics teams in the last year, and in February, the district announced a $112,000 grant from the state education department to pay for robotics materials and after-school coaches in more schools.

“Our ultimate goal is to offer this type of programming to every student districtwide,” Vitti said in a press release announcing the grant. “This commitment excites our parents and the business community which is yearning for future employees with STEM skills.”

For now, Cesar Chavez Academy High School — a charter school that the district does not operate — will alone represent Detroit high school students at the international competition, set to recur in the city annually until 2020.

The academy’s five-year-old team, the Az-Tech Eagles, has racked up sponsorships from local companies, including General Motors and Detroit Labs, according to the competition website. But it faces an uphill battle in this week’s contest.

While most teams that qualified for the championship competition did so by winning local contests, Cesar Chavez got in by winning a “District Engineering Inspiration Award” earlier this year.

That award, according to competition rules, “celebrates outstanding success in advancing respect and appreciation for engineering within a team’s school and community.”

The district entered 53 teams from 39 schools, mostly elementary and middle schools, in qualifying competitions, according to a spokesperson. The only team from a district-run school in this week’s competition is the Mighty Lego Dolphins from Thurgood Marshall Elementary — one of the schools to introduce robotics this year.

About 40,000 people including students and their parents are expected for the competition, which starts Wednesday at Cobo Hall. A host of science- and technology-themed events have been planned throughout downtown including pop-up video arcades, live performances, and games.