Nikolai Vitti (Chalkbeat file photo)

Detroit Public Schools Community District has come far since its days of emergency management, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said in his State of the Schools address Tuesday evening. 

In the wide-ranging speech, Vitti touched on ways DPSCD has improved since he took on the top job in 2017: The district has re-established Parent–Teacher Associations (PTAs) at every school in an effort to get more parents involved in their students’ education. Students have improved their M-STEP, PSAT, and SAT scores in literacy and math. And DPSCD created a newcomer program for immigrant students at Western International High School. 

“Our work as a superintendent/board team was to rebuild the district and the way that it would function and how it would operate before emergency management, but also think to the future and be transformative to modernize the school district so that it can actually lead to change for children,” he said. “And we did that by starting with a plan.”

Vitti also noted that the district has increased teacher salaries, invested in art and music classes after they were cut under emergency management, and created a facility master plan to rebuild and reopen aging school buildings. 

An invitation-only crowd of teachers, students, parents, and community members filled the auditorium at Renaissance High School. When promoting State of the Schools, the district sent out emails to the school community, asking recipients to RSVP on Eventbrite.  An edited video of the event will be available at a later date, a district spokeswoman said.

Vitti touts improvements in attendance 

In his speech, Vitti addressed the struggles DPSCD has faced over the years is chronic absenteeism. During the 2021-22 school year, 77% of students were chronically absent at a time when COVID-19 cases in Michigan reached their peak. But even before the pandemic caused a spike in absenteeism in school districts across the country, students in the Detroit district and charter schools were missing school at crisis numbers.

Vitti noted the many barriers students face to get to school, such as poverty, crime, and health problems such as asthma. However, he said the district is starting to improve its attendance rates. 

During the 2022-23 school year, the district’s chronic absenteeism rate was 68%. While it is better than the previous year’s rate, the percentage is still above pre-pandemic levels. Vitti attributed that to school attendance agents, counselors, principals, and teachers engaging with students and getting parents involved with schools. 

One school he highlighted was Pulaski Elementary-Middle School, which saw a 36.5 percentage point decrease in chronic absenteeism and 10 percentage point increase in daily attendance. 

“Beyond Pulaski, there are multiple people in this room that have urged students to come to school when they’re tired. They have urged families to do their best to get kids to school,” Vitti said. “There are people in the audience that even in the snow, in negative 10 degree weather, still visited homes to get the kids to school.” 

Students show improvement on standardized tests 

Vitti also talked about student achievement and the efforts the district is making to get students to perform at grade level and ready for college. 

For students in grades 3-7, 2023 English language arts and math M-STEP proficiency results improved at 13% and 9.1%, while the 2022 results were at 10.9% and 6.2%. PSAT and SAT scores also improved. For eighth graders, the percentage of students who were proficient in reading and writing on the PSAT increased to 24% in 2023, while those proficient in math rose to 8.6%. This is compared to 10.9% proficiency in reading and writing and 6.2% proficiency in math the previous year. For high schoolers taking the SAT ,reading and writing proficiency levels increased to 32.9% and math to 11.7%. In 2022, those percentages were 26.9% and 8%, respectively. 

However, Vitti said the district’s goal is for students to rise above single-digit performances on the standardized tests. 

“We still have work to do since the pandemic, but we’ve definitely improved,” Vitti said. “If we look at our literacy data, you can see that 75% of schools improved at or above grade level performance the year after the baseline year.” 

Renovating school facilities 

Facilities were also on Vitti’s agenda. He brought up a 2018 review of school buildings, which found that 50% were considered deficient and only 7% were considered in good condition. 

But DPSCD is planning to improve the state of its buildings with its $700 million facility master plan, which includes rebuilding, reopening, or demolishing certain schools. The plan calls for rebuilding the following schools: Cody High School, Paul Robeson/Malcolm X Academy, Pershing High School, Carstens Academy, and Phoenix, a building that closed in 2016. Meanwhile, a handful of school buildings, including Ann Arbor Trail, Sampson Webber, and Clark, would close, but not immediately. The district would phase out enrollment in those schools, eliminating a grade each year until the buildings are empty.

Vitti showed a rendering of Pershing to give the audience a sneak peek of what to expect from the plan. 

“We love our advanced schools, we love our application schools, but we have to invest in our neighborhood high schools,” he said. “In building a new Pershing and Cody, we believe it keeps people in the city, they keep people in the public school system and there’s a legacy that has continued from previous years.” 

Tramena O’Neil, a parent outreach coordinator at Southeastern High School, said the points that stood out to her during the address were improvements in student achievement and how parents, students, and school staff are working together to improve the district. 

“DPSCD is a good district and if we continue to work together, it can be a great district,” she said. “If we can have more parental involvement, we wouldn’t have too many incidents in certain schools. For me, he (Vitti) is doing a fair job so far.”

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  1. Detroit public schools will continue to decline so long as the appalling levels of student misconduct, bullying, verbal and physical violence and general disrespect to each other, staff and administration is tolerated. There has to be a minimum, no-excuse, standard of behavior that is fairly, consistently and rigorously enforced, regardless of whether that affects what happens on “count day”.
    For many parents, DPSCD schools are taxpayer funded babysitting locations, and nothing morning. They drop off their ill-behaved children at the front door, click off their cell phones and go about their business. With that attitude, and the restrictions placed on teachers and administrators with regards to disruptive and at times criminal behavior by the students, teaching and learning become almost impossible and the school experience becomes one of survival for everyone involved.

    The responsibility for this disaster begins at the top: Vitti doesn’t have either the will or the power to take on the school board, which is fully aware but curiously indifferent to the slow motion implosion which is the current iteration of the Detroit public schools system. While the type leadership is busy burnishing credentials, checking boxes and cashing checks, generations of school children are being consigned to a lifetime of underachievement, mediocrity and shattered dreams through no fault of their own.

    Shame on Vitti and the school board….every one is a disgrace!

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