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Vitti made the grade in first year of Detroit turnaround, school board says

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti speaks during a forum about families that frequently switch schools in Detroit.
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti speaks during a forum about families that frequently switch schools in Detroit.
Koby Levin

The Detroit district superintendent received high marks from the school board after his first year, a vote of confidence for his effort to turn around what is arguably the nation’s most troubled urban school district.

Nikolai Vitti’s final grade: 3.2 out of a possible 4 points, for a rating of “effective.” The best possible score was “highly effective,” given for a rating of 3.6 points or higher.

The very existence of an accountability system for the district’s top official is a step forward for Michigan’s largest district, which was operated for the better part of the last two decades by state-appointed emergency managers who were not beholden to voters in Detroit. Hiring Vitti was the first job of the elected school board that took control of the district from the state at the start of 2017.

As Vitti leads the district into the second year of a mammoth turnaround effort, he is relying on the board’s support. Any major reforms — and there are many on Vitti’s to-do list, from replacing outdated curriculums to finding $500 million to repair and renovate outdated facilities — require the board’s approval.

Vitti took the reins in May of 2017, and it’s still too early to measure his progress on key reforms. Several data points were excluded from the report for that reason, including data about attendance, teacher retention, and student growth in English and math.

Sixty-five percent of the evaluation is based on board members’ ratings of what were described as Vitti’s “professional standards.” The remainder is based on hard data like student test score growth.

The evaluation, which was completed in September and recently obtained by Chalkbeat, praises Vitti for strengths including “visionary and instructional leadership, governance and board relations and professionalism and ethics.” It notes that the district has seen some academic improvements, including an uptick on SAT math, enrollment increases, and a reduction in the number of teacher vacancies on the first day of school. It also identifies areas where he can improve for the coming year, including “talent and organizational management.”

Board members are balancing the district’s deeply troubled recent history with their expectations — and Vitti’s promises — of rapid improvement.

In the next two years, Vitti will have to confront a ballooning crisis around the district’s crumbling school buildings and a tough new third-grade reading law that could force the district to hold back most of its third-graders — all while improving on test scores that have consistently been the lowest in the nation.

LaMar Lemmons said the superintendent has taken on an historic challenge.

“Nowhere in America in history post-slavery has there been a people starting from the very beginning like we have,” Lemmons said. “He has to be given credit for that. He’s really coming in to rebuild a school district.”

Lemmons says he rated Vitti lower than the rest of the board — he’s still concerned about the paperwork snafu that cut into the district’s debt payments by $6.5 million. But he’s leaving the board after declining to run for re-election, meaning Vitti will likely start the New Year with even stronger board support.

Scroll down to read the full evaluation, or click here to read the application that got Vitti the job.

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