From Emergency to Autonomy: Detroit Schools’ Superintendent on District Transformation

Staff Writer
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When Nikolai Vitti became superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District in 2017, he was faced with the task of rebuilding the school district after nearly a decade of being under state-controlled emergency management. 

The school system has a history of prolonged financial crises and subpar academic performance and graduation rates. Vitti set out to transform the district through the implementation of a strategic plan that brought changes to everything from the budget to curriculum to personnel. 

Vitti had experience working in big school districts, even before coming to Detroit. He was the chief academic officer of the Miami-Dade County school district and served as superintendent of the Duval County, Fla., schools earlier in his career. Yesterday, at the EdWeek Market Brief virtual summit, he spoke about how he’s sought to implement his priorities in Detroit, and how he works with and sets expectations for education companies. 

Diagnosing the District 

Vitti’s first priority when he became superintendent six years ago was to engage people. He wanted district employees to get an idea of who he was, what he’s done, and what his vision for the district was. And he wanted their input.  

Nikolai Vitti
Nikolai Vitti

 As part of that engagement process, he asked district employees what academic and strategic efforts were working in the district, what was not, and what the school system could do differently. 

“This way, the strategic plan wouldn’t just be mine or just the school board’s – people would see themselves in [it],” Vitti told EdWeek Market Brief Staff Writer Emma Kate Fittes. “It was really about diagnosing the system and seeing what we need to do better and differently in order to raise student achievement.” 

That meant analyzing and, in some cases, rebuilding the infrastructure, or the supports, needed to accomplish those goals. 

The superintendent’s team redesigned the budget and aligned curriculum to student achievement metrics, such as state testing, college-readiness standards, daily attendance, and climate and culture through surveying students on whether they felt loved, challenged, and prepared.  

“What are the inputs that need to be in place to get the outputs?” Vitti said. “You need infrastructure to do that.” 

Investing in Teachers 

The Detroit school system’s status when Vitti took over – it was under state oversight until 2020 – did not create the best conditions for investing in one of the district’s most important assets: teachers. 

Turning that around was another key area of focus. 

“Teachers in the classroom are the epicenter of the reform,” Vitti said. “They were not given the right resources and materials to be successful in the classroom, and they definitely went through trauma through emergency management.” 

He was convinced that improving teacher experience would ultimately help students as well in reaching their academic and civic potential. As a first step, teacher salaries were increased by an average of about $15,000, with beginning teacher pay starting at $53,000, the highest in metro Detroit. 

In the past two years, teacher vacancies have shrunk from 400 to zero. 

The district has to take ownership in its vision and define the gaps. Then, let [vendor] partners come in and fill those gaps — rather than the inverse.

The district also placed renewed emphasis on professional development and support for principals and educators, including trying to cap class sizes and providing more resources when it comes to disciplinary issues. 

But there’s more work to be done, Vitti said. 

“The average teacher would say it is night and day from the days of emergency management, but there’s room for improvement, especially with communication and providing more support to [teachers] to deal with the issues that students bring to the classroom,” he said. 

Other areas in which Vitti plans to continue to develop include more mental health support, and more accountability for parents on attendance issues. 

Districts – Not Vendors – Own the Vision 

 Improvement only comes when the district has a clear idea of where it wants to go and how to get there, rather than solely relying on its partnerships with education companies, Vitti said. 

“The district has to take ownership in its vision and define the gaps,” he said. “Then, let partners come in and fill those gaps, rather than the inverse.” 

Rather than having “catch-all” relationships, the district has been intentional in limiting the number of vendors it works with, which leads to “better accountability, more scalability, better communication and problem-solving,” Vitti said. 

The district has to take the lead, he said. But then the expectation for education companies is that they would refer back to the district’s goals and metrics and own the problem-solving, working alongside district staff so that a solution can be developed together. 

“We’ve developed a system now, but what I look forward to do in the years to come… is to try to move even more towards autonomy,” he said, which is “proven in student achievement and how we use our budget.” 

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Image by Getty.

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