Letter from the Editor: Lesson Plan

R.J. King
R.J. King

With little fanfare but plenty of long-term benefits, the Detroit Public Schools Community District has turned the corner on decades of mismanagement and now is delivering educational gains in the classroom and drawing career-focused investment from the region’s corporate sector.

Yes, you read that right.

Since Superintendent Nikolai Vitti began running the district in 2017, the city’s schoolchildren have improved their reading and math scores across all tested grades. In August, the state reported student proficiency levels rose across the board due to what Vitti says were a new K-8 curriculum in reading and math, more teachers and improved morale, greater accountability, and an increase in professional development.

Away from the classroom, Vitti has worked with the elected school board, unions, and the corporate community to focus on advancing student education above all else. Before Vitti arrived, the district was hampered by more than 230 teacher vacancies — since reduced to around 70, due in part to a boost in salaries and bonuses — a decaying infrastructure, and union rules that, at times, benefited adults more than children.

That’s all changing. With around 53,000 students, the district is starting to draw renewed interest from parents and students. At the start of the school year, enrollment rose by 5,000 students after years of decline. Vitti and the school board also have passed three balanced budgets and established a $30-million budget reserve to help offset potential losses in the future.

To improve the schools’ infrastructure, Vitti reached out to unions, foundations, businesses, and benefactors. Like every school district, funds for infrastructure improvements come from the state’s annual per-student appropriation dollars. Money from the federal government, known as Title X, only can be spent on student programming.

The only other way school districts can raise money to upgrade classrooms and buildings is through a voter-approved bond proposal. Given a new bond initiative was likely premature until sustained results were realized, Vitti started to make the rounds among likely donors, many of whom have a pressing need to develop talent in light of lower birth rates and a declining population in Michigan.

Blame the booming economy, as well, which has caused labor shortages across the country at a time when baby boomers have reached, or are nearing, retirement age. In addition to union support, contributions from the Big Three automakers and their suppliers, the DTE Foundation, the Ballmer Group, the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, Penske Corp., Quicken Loans Inc., and others has led to major upgrades at the district’s career-focused schools.

Already, $10 million has been invested at both the Randolph Career Technical Center and the Breithaupt Career Tech Center, in addition to $1 million in investments at the Benjamin O. Davis Aerospace Technical High School at
Detroit City Airport. More private and foundational support is in the works, while nonprofit organizations like Beyond Basics, the Hantz Foundation, and DesignConnect are working with teachers to improve student literacy and career opportunities via one-on-one training and mentoring programs.

Given a widening range of opportunities in skilled trades, which don’t necessarily require a four-year college degree, students at the Randolph, Breithaupt, and Davis tech centers now enjoy renovated classrooms, laboratories, and technology. The upgrades mean students have access to the latest equipment in such fields as automotive service and collision repair, aviation, mechatronics and welding, retail and hospitality, culinary arts, and design.

While more work needs to be done, the city’s ongoing renaissance now includes a solid foundation of education.

— R.J. King, rjking@dbusiness.com