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New Detroit schools chief on city educators: ‘it is miraculous that they are still educating children’ after district’s ‘trauma’

Chalkbeat Senior Detroit Correspondent Erin Einhorn moderates a panel on the future of Detroit schools feating United Way of Southeast MIchigan's Herman Gray, new Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and Walbridge CEO John Rakolta, Jr.
Chalkbeat Senior Detroit Correspondent Erin Einhorn moderates a panel on the future of Detroit schools feating United Way of Southeast MIchigan's Herman Gray, new Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and Walbridge CEO John Rakolta, Jr.

After a week of meeting with teachers in Detroit schools, new Detroit superintendent Nikolai Vitti says the city’s educators are facing a challenge that goes beyond just teaching kids.

They need to recover from “trauma” and “chaos,” he said.

“What I see when I visit schools and I meet with folks inside the organization … [is] a group of individuals that are deeply committed to children,” Vitti told an audience of business and political leaders Wednesday morning at the annual Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island.

“I see system that has gone through trauma, been a part of chaos, but has focused on children,” Vitti said. “And considering all the drama that they’ve been a part of, it is miraculous that they are still educating children with a degree of focus.”

VItti was a featured panelist in a session Wednesday morning at Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel that focused on the future of Detroit schools. (Chalkbeat Senior Detroit Correspondent Erin Einhorn moderated the panel, which the Skillman Foundation sponsored. The Skillman Foundation also supports Chalkbeat; read about our funding here.)

In an hourlong session, Vitti and the other panelists — United Way of Southeast Michigan President Herman Gray and Walbridge CEO John Rakolta Jr. — addressed a host of strategies that could improve Detroit schools, including improving special education, solving the city teacher shortage, and giving teachers a long-awaited pay raise.

But Vitti’s most passionate remarks came when he discussed the ongoing effects of the last 20 years in Detroit schools, which have included multiple state interventions and a series of emergency managers who presided over years of rising debt and declining enrollment in the district.

Teachers and educators have been worn down by “all the leaders that have come and gone, the different governance structures,” Vitti said. But he’s hoping his arrival will herald a new day.

“Now is the time to shift,” he said. “It’s now time to be a strategic thoughtful, active organization, not one that is reactive. Not one that is passive. Not one that is waiting for someone else to determine … its fate but to take ownership of what we know a world-class large urban school district looks like.”

Vitti is looking to buy a house in Detroit, he said, and is actively looking for schools in the Detroit Public Schools Community District for his four children, including two who have special needs.

He says the struggles that district educators have endured in recent years are a reason he feels he can trust his children to the district.

“Those teachers that have stayed, those principals that have stayed, there’s a great deal of commitment that goes along with that,” he said. “So any time you’re thinking about where to put your children as far as education is concerned, you want them to be connected to educators that deeply believe in the process.”

Vitti said he sees “pockets of excellence” when he visits schools and hopes other parents who’ve rejected to the district in the past will give it a chance.

“The challenge I have often is people make assumptions about schools without even visiting them,” he said. “Don’t go on stereotypes. Don’t go on perceptions. Don’t got entirely on what you read in the newspaper or see on TV. Actually visit the schools themselves and you see great teachers, great principals, great programs … so as someone with multiple degrees, well educated, my wife the same way, if we’re willing to put our children in the school system, then there are so many other parents that should do the exact same thing.”

Watch the full video of the Mackinac session here, courtesy of Detroit Public Television.

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