staffing up

Sweetening the deal: Detroit considers dangling extra cash to hire 150 teachers

PHOTO: Aliyah Moore
Parents at Detroit's Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy say a teacher shortage is to blame for the 42 kids in a second-grade class.

After weeks of struggling to hire enough teachers, Detroit’s main school district is now looking for new ways to lure them in.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he’s working with the city teachers union to negotiate incentives that might convince certified teachers to take “hard-to-staff positions.”

The incentives — which would need union approval — would benefit new teachers as well as current ones.

“We know that in order to go deeper with staffing, we’re going to have to offer a set of incentives at particular schools that have been more challenging,” Vitti said.

The details are still being worked out, he said, but the district is focused on attracting special education teachers and those who will teach core subjects like reading, math, science and social studies.

The district has hired about 100 teachers since the first day of school to bring the number of vacancies down to 150, Vitti said.

Over 300 have been hired since July, he said. “We know we can bring them into Detroit. We just obviously need more time to go out and recruit.”

Teachers union leader Ivy Bailey said the district has long offered bonuses to teachers working in critical shortage areas but the new incentive program would be more extensive.

The union is open to the idea, she said. “We’re committed to increasing student achievement and we know that to do that, we’ve got to fill these vacancies with qualified teachers.”

For now, most of the classrooms without certified teachers are being staffed by long-term substitutes, Vitti said.

But there are also classrooms around the city where the shortage has forced teachers to take on 40 or 50 students.

Among schools facing that challenge is the Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on the city’s west side. Last year Chalkbeat visited a classroom at the school where 37 first-graders were crammed in together without breaks for music or art or gym.

This year, those first graders are in a second-grade class that has 42 students — and the school still doesn’t have an art teacher.

“It’s just frustrating,” said parent leader Aliya Moore whose daughter Tyliya is in that class. 

“I’m constantly hearing that teacher holler,” said Moore who sent Chalkbeat a photo of the crowded classroom. “She’s trying to gain the attention of all those students and instructional time is constantly getting broken up because she has to tell a child to be still, to sit, to ‘put that down.’ She’s an excellent teacher but the load is just too high.”  

Vitti said he was aware of that classroom and others like it but said the district is now starting to level classrooms so that schools with too many kids will get more teachers from schools that had lower-than-expected enrollment.

School advocates worry that leveling takes so long that some parents will get impatient and remove their children, ultimately hurting the school when its budget is reduced because of declining enrollment. But in a city where many families spend September figuring out where their children will go to school, the district has typically waited weeks to start moving teachers.

Not every school has the space to create another classroom, Vitti said.

“It’s not as simple as saying they need another teacher,” he said. “Now that we have enrollment settled, we can do the analytics to define the problem and come up with solutions.”

Moore says she believes it’s not likely that another teacher will come to Paul Robeson Malcolm X. She said the school principal told her on Thursday that because the school has an elective class in which kids learn to create African-inspired art and poetry — part of the school’s African-centered curriculum — it technically has enough teachers for its current enrollment.

She fears that elective will be canceled to reduce the size of the second grade but Vitti stressed that the district will not cancel elective classes linked to a school’s mission.

Principal Jeffery Robinson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the status of that class.

Chrystal Wilson, a district spokeswoman, said the district conducted a preliminary review of staffing levels at the school and found that the “school’s schedule indicates that the principal can address the class size issue by maximizing all certified teachers as other schools have tried to do.” 

Once that has been done, she said, the district “will revisit the school’s allocation.”

In addition to considering incentives to hire teachers now, Vitti said he’s also planning for long-term recruitment. He’s having conversations with colleges like Wayne State University about placing more student teachers in Detroit schools this spring in hopes that they’ll come work for the district when they graduate.

“We need to have an active pipeline for teachers,” he said.

buses or bust?

Mayor Duggan says bus plan encourages cooperation. Detroit school board committee wants more details.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Detroit’s school superintendent is asking for more information about the mayor’s initiative to create a joint bus route for charter and district students after realizing the costs could be higher than the district anticipated.

District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a school board subcommittee Friday that he thought the original cost to the district was estimated to be around $25,000 total. Instead, he said it could cost the district roughly between $75,000 and a maximum of $125,000 for their five schools on the loop.

“I think there was a misunderstanding….” Vitti said. “I think this needs a deeper review…The understanding was that it would be $25,000 for all schools. Now, there are ongoing conversations about it being $15,000 to $25,000 for each individual school.”

The bus loop connecting charter and district schools was announced earlier this month by Mayor Mike Duggan as a way to draw kids back from the suburbs.

Duggan’s bus loop proposal is based on one that operates in Denver that would travel a circuit in certain neighborhoods, picking up students on designated street corners and dropping them off at both district and charter schools.

The bus routes — which Duggan said would be funded by philanthropy, the schools and the city — could even service afterschool programs that the schools on the bus route could work together to create.

In concept, the finance committee was not opposed to the idea. But despite two-thirds of the cost being covered and splitting the remaining third with charters, they were worried enough about the increased costs that they voted not to recommend approval of the agreement to the full board.  

Vitti said when he saw the draft plan, the higher price made him question whether the loop would be worth it.

“If it was $25,000, it would be an easier decision,” he said.

To better understand the costs and benefits and to ultimately decide, Vitti said he needs more data, which will take a few weeks. 

Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s chief of staff, said the district’s hesitation was a sign they were performing their due diligence before agreeing to the plan.

“I’m not at all deterred by this,” Wiley said. She said the district, charters, and city officials have met twice, and are “working in the same direction, so that we eliminate as many barriers as we can.”

Duggan told a crowd earlier this month at the State of the City address that the bus loop was an effort to grab the city’s children – some 32,500 – back from suburban schools.

Transportation is often cited as one of the reasons children leave the city’s schools and go to other districts, and charter leaders have said they support the bus loop because they believe it will make it easier for students to attend their schools.

But some board members had doubts that the bus loop would be enough to bring those kids back, and were concerned about giving charters an advantage in their competition against the district to increase enrollment.

“I don’t know if transportation would be why these parents send their kids outside of the district,” Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said. “If we could find out some of the reasons why, it would add to the validity” of implementing the bus loop.

Board member LaMar Lemmons echoed other members’ concerns on the impact of the transportation plan, and said many parents left the district because of the poor quality of schools under emergency management, not transportation.

“All those years in emergency management, that drove parents to seek alternatives, as well as charters,” he said. “I’m hesitant to form an unholy alliance with the charters for something like this.”

After the bell

The Detroit district plans to use teachers to run after-school programs. Youth advocates wonder why

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo

Some advocates for Detroit youth programs were alarmed last week to learn that the Detroit school district did not apply for a major state grant that pays for after-school care for more than 400 students in low-income schools.

For the past four years, the district has been using the yearly $2 million in funding from the 21st Century Community Learning Center grants to bankroll after-school care at 15 of its schools, but after this summer, the five-year grant will run out.

The decision not to apply was deliberate, said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. He said he wants after-school programs to stop providing what he calls “pockets” of services – different offerings at different schools – and to “better align the programs to the strategic plan.”

Advocates involved with the after-school programs said the decision came as a shock to them.

“I just wish he had told us,” said one after-school advocate who asked to remain unnamed for fear of hurting her relationship with the district. “It’s frustrating that he’s taking this stance.”  

To apply for the state funding, the district is required to select a partner to administer the after-school care.  But instead of partnering with organizations, like the YMCA or Children’s Center, he plans to begin running after-school care with district staff.

His plan, he said, is to “offer the same, if not better,” after-school care to students “at a lower cost” while better aligning the extra instruction to what kids learn in class by using district staff—mostly teachers—to run the programs, although some partners will continue working with the district.

“Maybe not every provider should be a provider, okay?” Vitti told after-school providers and advocates when he addressed them at a meeting last week. “Maybe the services you are providing could look different” if teachers or other district employees were leading the programs.

Vitti has not always been opposed to funds from these grants. He told the Free Press last summer that the district did not have a solution in place if the funding from the 21st Century Community Learning Center grants was eliminated, which was a concern last year when President Trump said he wanted to cut the funding.

“The elimination of these programs in particular will reduce high-level programming for students…. This makes little sense when you consider the needs of our children and families,” Vitti told the Free Press.

Education advocates have serious concerns. They say expert partners can offer quality enrichment programs and academic support that districts could not provide on their own, especially if they plan on using teachers just getting off from a full day of work.

“Are teachers at their best from 3 to 7 p.m. after a full day of teaching?” said another youth advocate who asked to remain unnamed for fear of hurting her relationship with the district. “Couldn’t youth development providers help support them?”

Vitti, however, implied there’s nothing to worry about. He said after-school programs, which feed kids, help them with homework, and provide enrichment activities like arts and music instruction, would remain largely unchanged.

He said many of the grant-funded activities, like arts and music, tutoring and college prep that after-school partners had been providing will “now be provided through school personnel.”

One youth advocate said she understood the district may have issues with how the grants are handled and how the money is divided, but that the community partners want to continue offering after-school support.

“It’s hard to hear [the district thinks they can run the programs better] in Detroit when we’ve been through what we’ve been through,” said one youth advocate, “because the consistency for our kids has been us, not the district.”