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Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and Big Sean pose together at an event in 2017.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and Big Sean pose together at an event in 2017.

Determined to fill schools, Detroit district turns to a celebrity endorsement from Big Sean

Rapper Big Sean has agreed to take part in a campaign to boost enrollment in the main Detroit school district, school officials said Monday.

Now, the artist who first made a name for himself performing in rap battles that aired on a Detroit radio station before going on to record three number one Billboard hits, will lend his fame to Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s effort to win back students.

It’s not clear what role Big Sean will play in the effort but Vitti told school board members Monday night that the rapper had signed on.

“He’s going to help us with” the campaign, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said after the meeting. She said further details could be available in mid-June.

It’s not the first time the district has turned to celebrities to help recruit students.

In a city where roughly half of schools are charters and where more than 30,000 Detroiters leave the city every day to attend schools in the suburbs, school leaders have gone to unusual lengths to attract students.

In 2009, Robert Bobb, one in a string of emergency managers appointed by the state to run the district, recruited Derrick Coleman, a former Detroit Piston, and comedian Bill Cosby in an effort to stem the tide of students leaving for charter schools and districts outside the city. It was part of a $500,000 marketing campaign pushed by the district at the time.

Nearly a decade later, the challenge — and the proposed solution — haven’t changed much. In fact, enrollment has plunged from 84,000 students back in 2009 to just over 50,000 this year.

Enrollment is a key challenge for Vitti, who recently marked a year at the district’s helm. Attendance figures, a key determinant of the district’s state funding, shrank by two-thirds between 2002 and 2016. While the city’s population decline was one culprit, the district’s reputation didn’t help.

To pull families away from charter schools, its chief competitors for teachers and students, the district is planning a summer outreach blitz. District representatives plan to visit block clubs and churches, and advertisements will go up on buses, in movie theaters, on the radio, and on television.

Vitti’s 47-page proposal to win back students does not mention Big Sean by name, but it emphasizes advertising and on the district’s brand, from its logo to its letterhead. (See the full plan below.)

In recent months, Big Sean has signaled a desire for deeper involvement in the city’s civic life. He spoke in May on a panel with billionaire Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert in front of 400 Detroit public school students, according to his non-profit, the Sean Anderson Foundation. And he posed with Vitti at a district event last summer.