Derrick Coleman said goodbye to an administrative position with Detroit Public Schools in 2011. Now, the current leader of River Rouge schools said he hopes to come back to fulfill his “calling.”
“You can help a few in River Rouge, but to take the work done in River Rouge and bring that to Detroit and to bring it to scale, you’ll impact much more,” Coleman said Monday as he made his case for why he should be Detroit’s next superintendent.
The second of two finalists for the Detroit district’s top job met with teachers and students, labor and business leaders, parents and community members, and finally the school board over the course of 12 hours on Monday.
A Detroit Public Schools graduate, Coleman responded with brash confidence to questions about the city’s vexing education challenges. He said his track record proves he can make the improvements the city needs, although he did not bring data that he said would support his case, and he raised the possibility of having a personal stake in the district’s future.
“I would hope to” move my children from River Rouge to Detroit schools, Coleman said of daughters who will be in the fifth, 11th, and 12th grades next year. But, he added, “there is also an ex-wife and parenting arrangements so I’m going to do my best to convince her that this is what’s best for them.”
Now that formal interviews have been completed, a group of board members will travel to River Rouge and to Jacksonville, Florida, to see Coleman and Duval County schools chief Nikolai Vitti, who was in Detroit last week, in action.
We rounded up five reasons why Vitti might get the job — and three why he might not. Now, here’s our breakdown of what’s working in Coleman’s favor — and the big issues that could hold him back.
Four reasons why Coleman might get the job:
1. Coleman has experience growing enrollment – the number one thing Detroit needs to do to survive. Since school funding is based on the number of students a district can attract, the district’s declining numbers have devastated its finances. This is a problem River Rouge faced when Coleman came on. During his interviews Monday, he repeatedly cited the fact that he grew enrollment enough to close the $3.4 million deficit he inherited. (Nearly a third of River Rouge’s 1,750 students come over the border from Detroit.) He says he could do the same in his hometown and offered a three-pronged strategy: fixing the issues that cause families to leave, including overcrowding and inadequate teaching; offering busing to all students so they can get to the schools they choose; and “rebranding” the district. “If we don’t change the narrative, the lens through which we are viewed, we are not going to have any credibility with the community,” he said. He said River Rouge had added 24 school buses during his tenure but did not explain how Detroit could pay for additional busing.
2. He has local support, including River Rouge parents so loyal they came out to cheer him on. Renata Williams, a River Rouge resident and parent of two said she had taken her eldest son, a current high school senior, out of River Rouge schools seven years ago, but brought him back three years ago because of the improvements she was seeing with Coleman. “He was community-based, a father, a community leader, and was grounded,” she said of Coleman and her decision to re-enroll her child. “Do I want to see him go?” she asked. “No. But I support him 100 percent, because I know he’d support me.”
3. His approach to safety without metal detectors could appeal to Detroit families wary of prison-like schools. In River Rouge, Coleman said, he was able to lure Detroit families to his district by asking “How can we provide a suburban experience to urban students?” That meant making schools safe without using metal detectors, he said. “We don’t have metal detectors, nor are they needed — and we provide service to the exact same demographic” as Detroit schools, he said. He said he made River Rouge schools safer by addressing students’ social and emotional needs, creating a “trauma-sensitive environment,” and creating alternatives to suspensions for students who violate rules.
4. As a Detroit native and DPS grad, Coleman gets the challenges families in the city face — and that inspires him. “I’ve turned down overtures from other districts to apply,” he said. “I believe I’ve been the candidate of choice in many of those places” but he’s always felt drawn to Detroit. (He was turned down for Ypsilanti’s top spot in 2009.) “You can’t ignore your call,” he said, relating a story about once being offered a job in Pittsburgh and turning it down for one in Detroit. “What I told him was if I were an All-American coming out of college and I had a choice between the Lions and the Steelers, who do you think I’d want to play with? He said, ‘the Steelers,’ and I said ‘No, my job is to resurrect my hometown so I’m going back to Detroit.’”
Four reasons why Coleman might not get the job
1. He has never led a large school district. When Coleman was an assistant superintendent in Detroit from 2008-2011, his position had him in charge of only 29 schools — less than 25 percent of the district’s schools at the time. In his current role, Coleman is in charge of just four schools and around 2,000 students. (In contrast, Vitti runs a district more than three times to the size of DPSCD). Board member Sonya Mays summed up questions about his qualifications: Given that Coleman would be coming from a “district that has a significantly smaller student population that DPSCD does … what in your background gives us the confidence that it should be you?” she asked. Coleman’s answer: “I have never failed at anything I’ve done professionally,” he said. He said River Rouge’s small size was actually an advantage because he did not have a big team helping him make improvements there. And he said the stakes would be high for him as well as for the district, which could be taken over again by the state if schools don’t improve. “I don’t have a safety net,” he said. Coming to Detroit schools would mean leaving a stable job with a school board that supports him, he said. “This is how I feed my family. If I’m not successful, where do I go from here? What has happened to the superintendents that have left here? I tried to do some research and they disappeared.”
2. Test scores in River Rouge remain low — and Coleman didn’t bring data he said would cast this fact in a kinder light. When one board member asked him about the fact that his district has test scores even lower than Detroit schools, he pointed to the the hundreds of new students who’ve enrolled in his district — likely including Detroit students he’s accused of poaching. “You know I probably should have, but if I brought you data, growth data showing the students that have been in my district for four years or longer … I can show that we’ve had significant growth,” he said. “For a ninth grader who comes into our school and they’re functioning at a third grade level, by the time they take the MSTEP, you know at the 11th grade, they’re not going to be proficient but I can show you great growth. … We’ve enrolled over the last two years over 600 new students and so our assessment data isn’t necessarily indicative of the work that we’ve done. It says ‘This student came to us at this entry point.’”
3. He already left the district once. Coleman faced questions about his characterization of the Detroit district’s culture as “toxic” when he left for River Rouge. What would be different this time? His answer: “I would be in charge,” he said, to cheers and laughter. Asked to elaborate, he said, “I’m a dreamer. I’m just a firm believer that children, regardless of their socioeconomic status, can become incredible beings if they are able to walk into schools that are filled with those that care, that can help them believe that the impossible is possible.” When he worked previously for the district, he said, first under a superintendent, then under an emergency manager, his ideas were ignored. “I’m not going to stay in a relationship where I feel devalued, where I don’t have any influence or input, so it’s a different day because I’m allowed to create those conditions. With the previous administration, the frustration came about as a result of me having ideas that I knew would work that … they chose to ignore.”
4. He worked for controversial emergency managers. Coleman worked for both Robert Bobb and Roy Roberts, two of the state-appointed emergency managers who had tense relationships with teachers and unions. During the interview with labor and business leaders, teachers union interim president Ivy Bailey asked to address the “elephant in the room,” Coleman’s role with the state-appointed regime. “How would you create a culture and climate in the district where people could trust you, and have confidence in you and come to respect you?” she asked. Coleman was quick to point out that he was actually hired by Connie Calloway, the district’s last general superintendent, and attempted to quell any friction by pointing out he made the decision to leave DPS because he didn’t feel like the emergency managers were listening to his ideas. “My philosophy didn’t align with the national turnaround experts,” he said.
And one thing that could cut either way
1. Coleman is not connected to national education advocacy groups. Vitti faced repeated questions about his ties to the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which funded controversial education reforms in Detroit like the state-run Education Achievement Authority and runs a superintendent training program that incorporates leadership strategies from the business world. Unlike Vitti, Coleman did not participate in that training — which means he lacks both the assets and liabilities that a Broad affiliation would bring. This appears to have made the difference for at least one influential Detroiter: At the end of the day, former interim superintendent John Telford threw his support to Coleman, saying he believed the former DPS assistant superintendent had knocked the interview “out the park.” Telford said he thought Vitti had done a good job but he was turned off by the Florida superintendent’s Broad ties.