It took a lunch table of high schoolers to give Superintendent Nikolai Vitti some good news on the first day of school.
After a morning spent answering reporters’ questions about the Detroit district’s drinking water, several students told him that they came to the Detroit School of Arts from charter schools or schools outside the district — a good omen for the district’s quest to reverse decades of declining enrollment.
Then he walked out of the cafeteria and past a brand new water cooler — a physical reminder of the lead contamination that led Vitti to shut off district water fountains as a precautionary measure last week, and a sign of the immense challenges that remain.
News that he shut down drinking water in all of the district’s 106 schools — though not water for handwashing and other purposes — has made national headlines and dominated TV coverage of the first day of school. Most of the attention has focused on the Detroit Public Schools Community District, although, as Vitti pointed out, the problem is likely widespread in the city. Still, he said the district continues to press forward, pointing to early indications that enrollment is up for a second straight year.
“In the schools I visited today, the focus was not water, it was teaching and learning,” he told reporters during a tour of four district schools that saw improvements in their test scores this year.
And no matter the challenges facing Detroit children, the first day of school had the familiar feeling of a fresh start.
Earlier that day, before temperatures climbed into the 90s, families waited outside the Southwest Detroit Community School for the charter school’s front doors to open. A few blocks away, at Academy of the Americas, a dual-language school run by the city’s main district, the youngest students were busy laying down the foundations of a year of learning. A classroom of kindergartners was hard at work learning their art teachers’ name, while outside in the hallway a group of students practiced walking in a single file line.
If students looked nervous, they weren’t the only ones. For administrators in Detroit, the first day of school marks the start of a sprint across an education landscape marred by uncertainty about even the most basic facts, like how many teachers would show up for the first day of school.
The city’s main district, for instance, still had nearly 100 classrooms without a certified teacher on the first day of school, although that number has fallen from 275 since Vitti took over. And even as schools compete fiercely for students and teachers, dozens of the city’s lowest-performing schools could face serious consequences if they don’t improve their test scores.
Schools like Southwest Detroit Community School, a K-8 charter school.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s scary,” said Principal Kim Pritchett, as she sat in front of a whiteboard covered in a half-finished to-do list. Already done: creating an online folder of lesson plans. Still to do: lay out a professional development schedule for the year. Pritchett, who started on the job less than a month ago, says she spent much of the weekend in this office in feverish preparation for the school year.
“They have to trust me and understand that my commitment is to them,” she said of teachers and students at the school.
Pritchett is the fifth principal in five years at a charter school that went from being a symbol of strong school-community relations to a reminder that good intentions aren’t enough to sustain a school.
On Tuesday morning, there were indicators that high administrative turnover wasn’t enough to spoil the goodwill between the community and the school. As many as 93 percent of last year’s students re-enrolled, according to Pritchett. And while she is still hoping to hire a couple of classroom aides, she said that every teaching position at the school was filled by a certified teacher on the first day.
“It’s gonna be a good year,” said Nicole Cole, who has three sons at the school and plans to enroll a fourth next year. “The teacher-parent relationship has always been close.”
A good year is badly needed. After years of poor test results, the school was placed in March on a state watchlist, putting it in line for additional oversight and even for closure if its test scores don’t improve within three years. Pritchett has been in this situation before: As principal at Plymouth Educational Center, another Detroit charter, she says she helped that school lift its academic performance and escape the priority list.
More than 60 of Detroit’s roughly 200 public schools (both charter and traditional) are under similar pressure. Yet test scores released last week made clear that most are not hitting the targets laid out in contracts with the state.
For those schools, the coming academic year is especially high-stakes. Vitti has promised to improve the academic performance of Michigan’s largest school district, which contains more than 50 schools on the state watchlist. They could face consequences if they don’t reverse years of low test scores, but Vitti says they’ll benefit from newly adopted math and English curriculums, which are in use starting this year. Those gains, however, won’t be apparent at least until the next round of test scores are released next summer.
Nonetheless, he used a first-day-of-school tour of four district schools to highlight those that saw improvements in their test scores last year.
At Academy of the Americas, where English scores have risen by 12 percentage points over the past three years of testing, he took over the PA system with an encouraging message for teachers.
“We get questions about what our children are capable of doing,” he said. “And you have demonstrated what they are capable of doing, and what they’re capable of doing in the future. So continue to work hard, continue to put students first, and we’ll always be willing to showcase the great work that happens at Academy schools.”
Walking between classrooms, Vitti kept a close eye on students. When one walked by in tears, with cotton balls wadded in his nose (apparently to quell a bloody nose), Vitti briefly laid a hand on his shoulder. Earlier in the day, on a visit to Gardner Elementary School, he helped fix an untied shoelace.
As the afternoon heat rose, classrooms at Academy of the Americas were well above room temperature — a reality in a district where aging electrical systems would make running air conditioning difficult even in schools that have that equipment. The heat, along with the water problems, are two symptoms of infrastructure problems so serious that they would cost $500 million to fix. Earlier in the day, Vitti told reporters that he considered releasing students early from school, as the district has done on other hot days, but chose not to, in part because he believes it is important to establish routines on the first day of school.
As his tour of the school concluded, Vitti and reporters walked past a student who was being supported by a staff member after fainting from apparent dehydration. A few minutes later, another overheated student was brought to the front office, and given water and ice for the same complaint.
Vitti said they’d been playing outside, which both students confirmed once they were feeling better. Asked about the students, he said the district has no plans to close schools early this week, but also isn’t ruling it out given a forecasted high temperature of 90 degrees on Wednesday.
“We’re going to look at the weather,” he said.