Back to class

On Detroit’s first day of class, unusual staffing problems hobble some schools and draw parent protests

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti talks with students at Durfee Elementary/Middle School on the first day of school in September, 2017.

Amid the excitement, first-day jitters and logistical challenges that many schools face on the first day of class, Detroit’s main school district was dealing some unique complications.

The district faced hiccups related to its merger with a defunct state-run recovery district and was still scrambling to fill more than 250 teaching jobs.

The teacher vacancies, which have long troubled city schools, have continued despite new superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s commitment to see all of the district’s 106 schools fully staffed by the first day of school.

“I’m disappointed because my expectation is that every child deserves a fully certified teacher on the first day of school,” Vitti said, noting that most of those classrooms are being staffed by non certified substitutes.

About 50 job candidates are currently being fingerprinted and vetted in hopes of joining the district soon, which will lower the number of vacancies, Vitti said. He hopes to fill the rest of those positions soon.

“We recruited 225 teachers over less than two months,” he said. “I think we’ve demonstrated an ability to recruit teachers in hard times and there’s momentum and there’s clarity that we can recruit teachers if we have a long enough runway to get off the ground.”

Vitti spent his morning making the rounds of district schools, visiting four elementary schools and a high school to check on enrollment, teacher vacancies, and other challenges.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit supertintendent Nikolai Vitti talks with students at Durfee Elementary/Middle School on the first day of school, September 5, 2017.

At Central High School, he saw several ramifications of staffing shortages, not just of teachers but of all kinds of staff.  

Vitti noted to Central’s principal, Abraham Sohn, that the noise level was remarkably high in the school cafeteria.

“My two cents,” Vitti told Sohn after leaving the lunchroom, “is you need systems and structures in there.”

“We do,” Sohn agreed. “But we don’t have the staff right now.”

Vitti heard a similar story when asked LaToyia Webb-Harris, the principal at Durfee Elementary/Middle School, which now shares a building with Central, how student enrollment was going.

Webb-Harris said she wasn’t entirely sure because she’d had difficulty completing a student headcount.

“We’re struggling with clerical, struggling really bad,” she told Vitti.

Vitti promised both principals that he would send back up from the central office to help.

“We’ve already moved people from the district level into schools and will continue to do that even in clerical,” he told Webb-Harris.

“We need to give you some help,” he told Sohn.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Central High School principal Abraham Sohn tells Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti that the high noise level in the school cafeteria on the first day of school is because “we don’t have the staff right now.”

The end of the state-run Education Achievement Authority after five years this summer exacerbated the teacher vacancies. Since EAA schools paid higher salaries and also gave teachers salary credit for years spent teaching in other districts, which the main district does not, many EAA teachers faced sharp pay cuts if they remained in the schools where they worked last year. Many took higher-paying jobs in the suburbs or in charter schools.

At Central, which had been part of the EAA, Sohn said just 25 percent of the school’s staff returned this year. Vitti said 65 of the 250 vacancies are in 11 former EAA schools.

The transition back to Detroit’s main district has also created other unexpected issues, Sohn said. Students who had transferred to EAA schools after being barred by the Detroit district for disciplinary reasons are having trouble re-enrolling now that their schools are back in the main district.

Former EAA schools are also trying to figure out how to address the fact that while EAA schools gave all students bus passes regardless of their addresses, the district’s policy is to give passes only to students who live in a certain zone.

Vitti says those issues will be addressed in coming weeks.

As he toured Central and Durfee, Vitti said he thought the merger of the schools into the same building was going well. Durfee moved into Central following the controversial decision by the district’s last emergency manager, Steven Rhodes, to lease Durfee to a community group. It was a decision Rhodes made on one of his last days with the district in December, citing the poor quality of Durfee’s building and a surplus of space in Central’s.

Vitti said the Durfee students seem to be in nicer classrooms than they occupied last year. “The shift for the Durfee students was the right one,” he said.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Not all district schools faced challenges on the first day. Students at Detroit’s Chrysler elementary school walked the red carpet the school set up for the first day of school.

Some parents and teachers across the district say they’re hopeful for improvements this year, but many remain seriously concerned — including parents at Paul Robeson/Malcolm X Academy, who were planning to protest teacher vacancies in their school.

“I feel unsatisfied and neglected,” Aliya Moore, a parent leader at the school, wrote in an email.

The teacher shortage has meant the application school doesn’t have the staff to offer classes such as gym or music or art.

“We (parents and community members) will not continue to allow our children to be shortchanged,” Moore wrote.

Many teachers, who have seen frequent leadership changes in the district over the past decade, remain skeptical about whether a new superintendent and a new school board will make this school year any different from past years.

“It’s kind of same old, same old,” said Detroit teachers union leader Ivy Bailey. “I think people are kind of waiting and seeing.”

Bailey said her members were reporting some first-day-of-school challenges across the district, but “nothing unusual.”

It was also the first day of school for many Detroit charter school students including these kindergarteners at the University Prep Academy charter school. Some 3,500 students are enrolled in University Prep schools.

call for more

Almost half of Detroit district schools don’t have a gym teacher. Next year, that may change.

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Since 10-year-old Hezekiah Haynesworth moved to his new school in the Detroit district, he’s always up out of his seat, talking to classmates and getting into trouble.

His mother, Victoria, says he wasn’t always like this. She believes he has nowhere to burn off excess energy because Bagley Elementary doesn’t offer students enough time for gym class or recess.

Bagley Elementary is one of 50 schools in the district without a gym teacher. Out of the 106 schools in the district, only 56 have at least one certified, full-time physical education teacher, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat.

The district employs 68 certified full-time physical education teachers for its student population of 50,875. More than 15,000 Detroit schoolchildren attend a school without a full time physical education teacher.

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, which means some kids, like Hezekiah, might only go once a month or less.

“He’s had behavior issues, but if he had the gym time there’s different activities he would do to burn off energy,” she said. “They would get that anxiety and fidgetiness out of them.”

Haynesworth might get her wish. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced earlier this month that there’s money in the budget to put gym teachers back in schools, along with art and music teachers and guidance counselors next school year, though the budget plan has not yet been approved.

“Not every student is provided an opportunity for physical education or gym” right now, Vitti said at a meeting earlier this month.

The district has almost 200 teacher vacancies, and giving schools money for a gym teacher doesn’t mean a school will be able to hire one.

But Vitti said he has several efforts in the works, like more recruiting trips and better hiring practices, to address the difficulties of finding and bringing in new employees.

Detroit is not the only district that has cut back on physical education teachers in recent years. At a time when schools are heavily judged by how well students perform on math and reading exams, some schools have focused their resources on core subjects, cutting back on the arts and gym and cutting recess to make more time for instruction and test prep. But experts say that approach is short-sighted.

Research on the importance of physical activity in schools has reached a consensus — physical education improves children’s focus and makes them better students.

“Available evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the academic topics that are most influenced by physical activity,” according to a 2013 federal report.

The link between physical education and improved reading is especially important for the Detroit district. Educators are working in high gear, in part pushed by Vitti, to prepare for the state’s tough new law that will go into effect in 2020, requiring third-graders who don’t read at grade level to be held back.

This year, the Michigan Department of Education has started to include data on physical education in schools into its school scoring system, which allows parents to compare schools. A separate score for physical education might push schools to hire physical education teachers.

Whether the state’s new emphasis on gym class or Vitti’s proposal to place a gym teacher in each district school is enough to put physical activity back in the schools is unclear, but Hezekiah’s mom Victoria desperately hopes it happens.

Hezekiah is given 45 minutes to each lunch, and if he finishes early, he’s allowed to run with the other children who finished early. If he doesn’t eat quickly enough to play, Victoria says she can expect a call about his disruptive behavior.

“I used to think that my son was just a problem — that it was just my problem,” she said. “But it’s a system problem. They don’t have the components they should have in the school.”

See which schools have gym teachers below.

come together

Detroit school chief wants to eliminate small high schools at Cody, Carson, and Mumford

PHOTO: Getty images
Detroit's superintendent proposed eliminating smaller schools at Cody, Mumford and Crockett high schools

After a nearly 10-year experiment to run multi-school campuses in several Detroit high school buildings, the superintendent is recommending consolidating them back into single-school campuses to save money.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told board members at a finance committee meeting this month that consolidating the schools would save the district almost $2 million by eliminating overlap in positions such as principals and other administrators.

If the full board accepts Vitti’s recommendation later this spring, the structure of a number of high schools would change.

Cody High School would go back to a single school that would try to incorporate the focus that exists in three smaller schools: Cody-Detroit Institute of Technology College Prep High School, Cody-Medicine and Community Health Academy, and the Cody-Academy of Public Leadership.

Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine, which shares a building with Crockett Career and Technical Center, would be merged under Vitti’s proposal.

The proposal also calls for the Mumford Academy to be folded into the larger Mumford High School. The Academy opened in 2015 as part of the state recovery district, which operated Mumford at the time.

Finance committee chair Sonya Mays compared the duplication in these schools to the proliferation of charters: dozens of schools are separately doing work once done by a centralized administration.

“I support combining the schools, strictly from an operational perspective,” Mays said, noting that the academic committee would need to consider the impact on student learning and curriculum.

“If you look at the city of Detroit landscape, and the number of charters we have, one of the things that I think gets lost in the conversation about school choice is just how much administrative duplication we’ve caused in Michigan,” she said.

More than a decade ago, smaller schools with fewer than 500 students became a national trend. Billionaire philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates’ foundation blamed huge, impersonal schools for low graduation rates, especially in poor neighborhoods of color.

Starting in 1999, the Gates foundation poured more than $3 billion into supporting smaller schools until it learned through its own study that the size of schools didn’t matter when it came to student performance — even though graduation rates and school performance improved in some districts such as New York. But because of the limited results, the foundation ultimately pulled back funding, which left school districts across the country struggling to pay for the costlier models. (Gates also supports Chalkbeat.)

The Detroit district did not receive any funding from Gates. But in 2010, the General Motors Foundation awarded a five-year grant for $27 million to help create and support small schools in the Detroit district.

Mary Kovari was principal at the former Cody-Detroit Institute of Technology College Prep High School, one of the small high schools at Cody. She said the idea of small schools could have worked, but they were expensive to create and sustain.

“You’re creating a small school, but you still have to do the same thing as a larger school,” said Kovari, now deputy director of the Detroit Bar Association.

At the committee meeting, Vitti estimated the school mergers could save $1.1 million at Cody, $735,000 to $825,000 at Mumford and $100,000 to $200,000 at Crockett/Carson. Earlier in the meeting, the superintendent presented an expensive proposal to the committee that called for counselors, gym teachers, arts or music teachers and a dean of culture in every school. Merging these schools is part of how he proposes to pay for that.

Already gone are the three small high schools formerly co-existing inside Osborn High School.

All three Osborn schools were on the state’s closure list last year after years of low test scores. Vitti said when he visited shortly after starting with the district last spring, it was clear that those schools “had to shift.” The board supported his proposal to merge those schools. When Osborn opened in September, it was again a single school.

“It’s hard to create the vision that we want … and have multiple [administrative] individuals within one building,” Vitti said.

Committee member Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said she agreed with the merger at Cody, but raised concerns about losing the ninth grade academy at Mumford.

“Parents at Mumford like the ability to have the ninth grade separate because the kids are mentally and emotionally just not ready [for high school],” she said. “But whether it’s two principals or one, I just want to preserve the ninth grade academy type program.”

Charlonda Love, who has a daughter in 10th grade at Mumford Academy, a school within Mumford High School, has mixed feelings about the plan to merge the schools.

Her daughter has enjoyed the benefits of the smaller school, such as getting more attention from her teachers in an environment where everyone seems to know her name. When her daughter told her teachers that Love’s car was stolen last year, they raised money to help her buy a new one. Love doesn’t believe that would have happened at a larger school.

On the other hand, when Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond visited Mumford High School, her daughter, a basketball player, didn’t get to meet him because she was a Mumford Academy student.

“It has pros and cons,” Love said. “At Mumford Academy, they do have more one-on-one relationships inside the school. They have better relationships with the students and the parents. This idea can be good and bad, but right now I think, in some instances, it’s OK they’re going back to one school.”

The proposal to merge schools will go next to the school board’s academic committee, which will to consider how merging the schools would affect student learning. Vitti’s proposal could go to the full board later this spring.