being heard

Joining national gun protest, Detroit students plan a two-mile march, speeches in three languages, and somber memorials

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti met with student leaders about their plans to participate Wednesday in a nationwide student walkout to protest gun violence.

When Detroit students join their peers in cities across the country Wednesday in walking out of school to mark the one-month anniversary of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, Ridgeley Hudson is planning to be at the front of one rally.

Hudson, a sophomore at Martin Luther King Jr. High School, has helped lead the planning for a two-mile march from the city’s east side to the Spirit of Detroit statue in front of the city and county building downtown.

Students’ goal, Hudson said, is to protest one of the solutions that lawmakers — and Detroit’s police chief — have proposed to keep schools safe: arming teachers.

“We’ll stand down there for about 20 minutes and let our voice be heard so that lawmakers know that we do not support teachers having guns in our school,” Hudson said.

At some schools, including Hudson’s, the protests have the support of administrators, who are offering buses, extra security, and other resources to help students participate. At others, officials are trying to rein students in, worried about their safety and lost class time.

Detroit school superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he sees the protests as an opportunity for students to learn leadership skills.

“I want you know that I’m on your side,” Vitti told a group of more than 20 student leaders, each representing a different high school, whom he brought together last week for a lunchtime meeting at the Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men.

The students had come by taxi from their home schools to attend the meeting, where Vitti asked them to share their plans for Wednesday.

“I want to help,” Vitti told them. “I don’t want to become the voice of this. I don’t want to take your voice away. I want to only promote your voice and give you space to lead on this issue.”

Hudson shared his school’s plans. Alondra Alvarez, a senior at Western International High School in southwest Detroit, who is on a national organizing committee for Wednesday’s protest, said her school is planning a 17-minute walkout “to bring awareness to how, in Detroit, we’ve actually normalized gun violence in the last couple of years,” she said.

And student leaders from other city high schools, including Cass Technical High School, Renaissance High School, and the Detroit International Academy for Young Women also shared plans for walkouts, memorial ceremonies and marches near their schools.

The students at Western are planning speeches in three languages — English, Spanish, and Arabic — and the release of 17 balloons to commemorate the lives lost at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14 when a former student with an assault rifle opened fire there.

Vitti told students that the district would provide extra security to schools planning walkouts as well as transportation for students who want to participate in another school’s event.

Students from several high schools expressed interest in buses that would take them to the Martin Luther King High School march. The students also discussed a larger, citywide student march on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine school shooting and another planned national protest.

“We will work with those principals to organize a way to have you be connected to King’s process that will get you to the Spirit of Detroit,” Vitti said.

Vitti said the meeting last week was the third time he has brought student leaders together to discuss issues facing their schools since his arrival in Detroit last spring.

The meeting began as a discussion about plans for Wednesday before veering into a range of issues including school safety, the value of school metal detectors, and whether high school students should have to wear uniforms.

Also discussed: the quality of cafeteria lunches and the district’s plans to start giving students ID cards that they’ll swipe in the cafeteria as part of a new system that will keep track of what students are eating — and which foods should be removed from the menu.

Next year, Vitti said, he plans to make the student gatherings more formal, with students at each school electing a representative to join the citywide forums.

“I want the district to allow you to continue to grow as leaders,” Vitti told the group last week. “I want to create space that you can feel safe, well organized and supported.”

Urgent repairs

Crumbling Detroit school buildings will cost $500 million to repair. It’s money the district doesn’t have

The water-damaged, mold-infested Palmer Park Preparatory Academy was closed for months while crews replaced the roof and made other repairs.

The buildings in Michigan’s largest school district have been so neglected and so poorly maintained for so long that a new review put the price tag for bringing them up to current standards at half a billion dollars — money the district says it doesn’t have.

“We would have to dramatically cut personnel to even put a dent in this problem,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told the school board’s finance committee during a meeting at the district’s Fisher building headquarters Friday morning. “And even then, we would not be able to make substantial improvement.”

The review, whose results one school board member called “tragically awful,” was conducted over the last several months by an architecture and engineering firm called OHM advisors. It assessed the condition of the 106 buildings that currently house district schools, including roofs, interiors, and systems like plumbing and electrical.

It found that nearly a third of school buildings are in an “unsatisfactory” or “poor” condition, while roughly a third are considered in good repair.

The review did not take into account 19 vacant buildings that the district owns and is responsible for securing and maintaining so that they don’t become a danger to the community.

That means that the “unbelievably frustrating” picture painted by the review “undershoots” the problem, said school board member Sonya Mays, the finance committee chairwoman.

What makes the situation even more extreme is the fact that the Detroit district does not have the same ability to borrow money for construction projects that other Michigan districts do.

When the state spent $617 million to create the new Detroit Public Schools Community District in 2016, the new law freed the new district from millions of dollars in debt that had hobbled the old Detroit Public Schools. But it put restrictions on the new district’s ability to borrow money.

Instead, the $617 million included $25 million for buildings improvements — including some pressing repairs that became national news that year when teachers walked out of their classrooms to protest building conditions, shutting down schools for days.

Vitti said much of that $25 million has been spent or is committed this year for projects like the the repair of the roof at the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, an elementary school that’s been closed for months since a leaky roof triggered a mold problem. Students at the school finished out the school year in a different building. 

“The $25 million is literally a drop in the bucket of what the overall need is,” Vitti told the finance committee.

He called for an urgent discussion to figure out which buildings should be repaired, which ones should be replaced, and which ones should be considered for closure.  

“What we’ve done in this review is at least define the problem,” Vitti said. “Now that we have solid data … we will have to think broadly and deeply” about what to do next.

Options could include returning to Lansing for additional help from the state or partnering with businesses or philanthropy to raise private funds for repairs.

Vitti noted that if nothing is done to repair these buildings, the cost of bringing them up to acceptable standards will swell to $1.2 billion by 2023.

If we don’t make a high level of investment, which frankly we do not have the revenue to do, this problem only compounds itself in the years to come,” Vitti said.

Scroll down to see the presentation Vitti gave to the finance committee, which includes specifics on which schools are most in need of work.

Enrollment push

‘The pressure is on everyone’ as Detroit’s main district advertises to attract more students

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit school board members stand with the students who will star in the district's summer ad campaign.

Detroit’s main school district has a new look.

Officials announced a new brand for the Detroit Public Schools Community District to real-live fanfare on Thursday, unveiling a new logo and tagline with a student brass band as backdrop.

After the announcement was made at Nolan Elementary School, students streamed out wearing blue tee shirts printed with the new logo, which depicts a rising sun.

“Students rise. We all rise,” reads the tagline, signaling that improvement  is coming to a district that is working to recover from decades of disinvestment and mismanagement.  Officials hope the campaign will bring Detroit families back to a district whose future depends in part on increasing enrollment.

That’s a sign of a new reality in public education, one that public relations professionals recognized around the time that policy shifts nationwide allowed more charter schools to open.

When school competition spread nationally, the phenomenon was especially pronounced in Michigan, where parents can enroll their children in charter schools or suburban schools that will accept them. State law puts few restrictions on where charter schools can be opened and who can open them.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the re-branding effort was inevitable in a state that fosters competition between school districts.  Vitti has criticized Michigan’s charter school laws, but has charged head-on into the battle to enroll students nonetheless.

“I think the pressure is on everyone,” Vitti said. “Students can move from one district to another. It’s incumbent on every school district and every school to go into a marketing mode.”

The district paid $100,000 for the $300,000 campaign, which was put together by BLVD Content and Real Integrated, marketing and strategy firms that have worked for Ford, the City of Detroit, The Henry Ford, and the Detroit Opera Theater. The firms donated about $180,000 worth of work, the district said, with the non-profit United Way chipping in about $20,000 through the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The brand includes television commercials and a new logo and tagline.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit’s main district has a new logo.

This is not the first time Detroit’s main district has used advertising to attract students. In 2010, the “I’m in” campaign won a top national marketing award. The old Detroit school district, which now exists only to pay off legacy debt, reported that 830 students enrolled as a result.

Nora Carr, former president of the National Association of School Public Relations, says schools are “borrowing a page from the private sector” by investing in brands. “Rarely mentioned a decade ago, branding is becoming part of the educational lexicon,” she wrote in a 2009 article.

While enrollment in Detroit’s main district has declined, it remains the largest in the state. That makes it easier to raise funds, but harder to implement a brand widely enough that it will become ingrained in parents’ perception of the district.

Many charter schools in the city are far smaller. Take The Detroit Achievement Academy, a 200-student charter school on the city’s northwest side. Kyle Smitley, the school’s founder, said in a text that she does the branding herself. “We don’t pay anyone externally,” she added.

District officials say the brand projects “a new beginning for traditional public education in Detroit.” His administration has set lofty academic goals, which it hopes to reach through an overhauled curriculum, but it remains too early to judge whether these efforts will move the district forward.

Boosting enrollment is a crucial piece of the puzzle. A plan unveiled earlier this month called for commercials on television, billboards and buses, part of an effort to bring back some of the roughly 30,000 students who wake up every day in the city and go to school in the suburbs.

The commercials will be based on a promotional video, also released Thursday, in which rapper Big Sean, a graduate of Cass Technical High School, speaks over images of actual Detroit students playing sports and studying. They build on a tradition of commercials that emphasize Detroit’s hard-knock reputation, with the rapper dropping lines like “we are a city that runs on ambition and grit.”

The video and other advertising materials can be seen on the district’s website.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the size of the contribution from United Way. The non-profit contributed $20,000 to the branding campaign.