meet the new boss

Q&A: New Detroit superintendent Nikolai Vitti is looking for a city house, schools for his kids, and — maybe — a ‘fit’ for Alycia Meriweather

PHOTO: Duval County Public Schools
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti meets with students on the first day of school in Duval County, Florida in 2016. He was selected in 2017 to lead Detroit schools.

Detroit’s next schools superintendent plans to arrive in the city as soon as May 22 and has a long to-do list for his first few weeks.

Among priorities: Finding a house in the city, checking out schools for his four children and — possibly — finding a role for interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather in his new administration.

“I’ve been impressed with the work that she’s done as interim superintendent,” Nikolai Vitti told Chalkbeat in a phone interview Saturday, a day after the Detroit school board approved a five-year contract that will pay him $295,000 in his first year and up to $322,000 in later years.

“I think she has been a great ambassador for the city and the district and the children and I believe there’s a place for her on the team,” he said. “I just have to get to know her better and understand the right fit for her.”

Meriweather, who has been a popular interim superintendent, had broad support from teachers, parents and administrators when she applied for the permanent job. Her supporters were angry when she was wasn’t included among the finalists.

She did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Saturday. Vitti said the two have not yet met.

The school board last month chose Vitti to run the 40,000-student Detroit Public Schools Community District. He is currently the superintendent of the 130,000-student Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida. His last day on the job there will be May 21.

Vitti’s contract formally begins on July 1 but the Dearborn Heights native said he would arrive in Detroit early the week of May 22nd.

He’ll be bouncing back and forth between Detroit and Jacksonville as his children finish out the school year in Florida. His goal, he said, is to permanently move his family to Michigan in mid-June.

“The first couple of weeks for me will be focused on engagement with district staff, school staff — including principals and teachers — and then external engagement with parents and elected officials at the city and state level to really understand what’s working and what we need to do differently.”

Vitti said he plans to live in the city, not the suburbs, and hopes to enroll his four elementary- and middle-school-aged children in public schools. But the fact that two of them have dyslexia could complicate his school search, he said.

“It’s just a matter of finding the right match,” he said. “A couple of my children have … special needs and I want to make sure it’s the right fit at that level.”

In Jacksonville, Vitti created a special school for children with dyslexia (as well as one for kids with autism) and said he’d eventually like to do something similar in Detroit.

“Most public schools systems don’t have the kinds of services that are really about meeting dyslexic learners’ individual needs,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that is specific to Detroit.”

A school for dyslexic learners would not only serve Detroit kids, he said. He believes such a school could be a draw for families from around the region who are looking for a specialized program.

“Statistically, 1 in 5 children face dyslexia and that number can be even greater for those growing up in poverty,” Vitti said. “Their needs are not met even more because they’re growing up in poverty.”

The Detroit district has many challenges including a severe teacher shortage that will need to be addressed but Vitti said he’ll set priorities over the next few weeks based on what he learns as he gets to know the district.

“I really want to hear from people in the district,” he said. “I really look forward to getting out to schools and setting aside some time to meet with teachers and hearing directly from them about what’s working, what’s not and what we need to do differently.”

Struggling Detroit schools

The list of promises is long: Arts, music, robotics, gifted programs and more. Will Detroit schools be able to deliver?

PHOTO: Detroit Public Television
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti answers questions at a community meeting in Detroit.

Arts. Music. Robotics. Programs for gifted kids. New computers. New textbooks. Dual enrollment programs that let high school students take college classes. International Baccalaureate. Advanced Placement.

They’re all on the list of things that Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a group of community members assembled in a Brightmoor neighborhood church that he would introduce or expand as soon as next school year.

Vitti didn’t get into the specifics of how the main Detroit district would find the money or partnerships needed to deliver on all of those promises, but they’re part of the plan for the future, he said.

The comments came in a question and answer session last month with students, parents and community members following Vitti’s appearance on Detroit Public Television’s American Black Journal/One Detroit Roadshow. The discussion was recorded at City Covenant Church. DPTV is one of Chalkbeat’s partners in the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.

Vitti has been appearing at community events since taking over the Detroit schools last spring. He is scheduled next week to join officials from two of the city’s major charter school authorizers, Central Michigan University and Grand Valley State University, at a State of the Schools address on October 25.

 

Watch the full Q&A with Vitti below.

State of the Schools

Detroit’s first State of the Schools address aims to ‘bring all the parties to the table’  

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn

There’s a State of the Union address, a State of the State address and a State of the City address.

Now, Detroiters will have a State of the Schools address.

“We thought it was important to do something just about schools,” said Jamila Martin, co-director of 482Forward, a citywide network of parents, students and educators that is sponsoring the first of what it hopes will be an annual event.

The State of the Schools will feature presentations from Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti as well as the leaders of two charter school authorizers — Grand Valley State University and Central Michigan University — that collectively oversee 25 of the city’s 60-plus charter schools.

All three speakers have been asked to bring data on their schools in a format that will allow for easy comparisons. Vitti has made no secret of the fact that he is competing with charter schools for students, and charter advocates have chided him for not working collaboratively with them.

Including charter schools in the event was a priority, Martin said, because most of the public’s attention over the past two years has focused on Detroit’s main school district.

The district, after years of state emergency management, was in so much debt that it only avoided bankruptcy last year when state lawmakers put $617 million toward creating a debt-free Detroit Public Schools Community District. Since then, eyes have been on the district’s first elected school board and the board’s hiring of Vitti last spring.

“That’s all important,” Martin said, “but it tends to obscure the fact that half of our kids are in schools that are not part of DPSCD.”

The State of the Schools event, which will be held at the Gesu Catholic Church in northwest Detroit from 6-8 p.m. on October 25, will be moderated by reporters from Chalkbeat and Bridge Magazine.

Organizers are asking people who want to attend in person to register in advance. For those not able to attend, the event will be carried live on Chalkbeat Detroit.

A parent, a student and a teacher will each play a formal hosting role in the event.

“This an opportunity for accountability,” said Jimmie Jones, an event host who has worked in both district and charter schools and sends his daughter Trinity, 7, to a charter.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there. There’s a lot of finger pointing,” Jones said. “This is an opportunity to bring all the parties to the table and unpack all of the rhetoric … and make it understandable and relatable to people.”