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Detroit schools chief sees come-from-behind victories in district’s future

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti works with a student on a personal computer at Cooke STEM Academy.
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti works with a student on a personal computer at Cooke STEM Academy.

As he watched basketball Monday night, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti thought about the parallels between Detroit’s main school district and the Golden State Warriors. The Oakland, California, team was considerably behind at half-time, but came back strong to win the conference championship and to advance to the NBA finals.

“Any coach will tell you, when you’re behind 30 points you can’t win in one minute,” Vitti told an audience Wednesday at the Mackinac Policy Conference, where he was speaking on a panel about preparing K–12 students for jobs of the future.

“You have to chip away at that deficit,” he said. “What we’re doing in the district right now with a sense of urgency is chipping away at that deficit and at that gap so we cannot only be tied, but move into a place of winning the game, especially with our early learners.”

The policy conference is a high-profile annual gathering that brings elected officials, policy wonks, corporate leaders, and philanthropists to Mackinac Island the week after Memorial Day. Vitti’s attendance at the conference last year marked one of his first public appearances, shortly after he became superintendent. Vitti will also speak Thursday alongside Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan on a panel about collaboration in education.

At Wednesday’s session, Vitti addressed an audience that might be skeptical about his prospects for improving a school system that posted the lowest test scores in the nation on a recent exam. He said he not only wants to raise test scores, but also believes Detroit can produce the kinds of critical, creative thinkers today’s economy needs. To that end, he stressed the importance of adding art and music education this fall, saying that even in a tech-focused market, it’s not enough to give students computers and tablets.

“We have to go back to critical skills, critical thinking and then opportunities linked to that and a pathway based on someone’s individual interests and talent,” Vitti said.

During the session Wednesday, the author Heather McGowan, who speaks and writes widely on education, stressed that new educational policies are needed to create the kind of environment that would attract a company like Amazon.

Despite its attempt to woo the tech giant, which is scouting locations for its second North American headquarters, Detroit didn’t make Amazon’s shortlist of finalist cities. The company cited the city’s insufficient talent pool.

“It’s not one educational system versus another,” McGowan said. “It’s how we create an ecosystem that allows learning to happen. The future of work, I believe, is learning and we have to start with purpose. If you understand your purpose, you will continue to learn and work to learn continuously.”

So far as the school district is concerned, Vitti said the city’s educational system failed to foster students’ creativity and individuality, operating more like a factory with children on a conveyor belt; that’s the reason, he said, so many of them have fallen off.

Vitti, said he spent his first year as superintendent trying to understand the changes needed to improve educational and career outcomes. He said the district is on the right track when it comes to training teachers to teach the core curriculum, providing a new K–8 curriculum this fall and helping students who are behind catch up to grade level.

“I believe this year’s kindergartners, when they become fourth graders by 2021, based on the National Assessment for Educational Progress, will show vast improvement from where we are right now,” he said, referring to a national standardized test in widespread use. “I know a lot of people would say we need the change to happen now.”

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