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Dr. Vitti & me: a conversation

Dr. Vitti and I had a chance to catch up at the onset of a massive snowstorm, two years into a pandemic, after being on a panel together and having found a seemingly easy rapport. We had a previous meeting scheduled before I started at The Skillman Foundation that we had to cancel due to COVID emergencies. 

I started by telling him a bit about myself, my lack of street cred as a Detroiter, and my lack of deep know-how in education systems. I also shared my past work, current work, my philosophy of how philanthropy can at times operate, and ways I like to approach partnership. It seemed to resonate and put him at ease. At one point he laughed which I deposited in my “make Dr. Vitti” smile bank and now have a surplus for the year.  

Our conversation was wide-ranging and freewheeling. Always comfortable and honest. I will try to capture the highlights below as they offered good insights I want to remember and carry.

Dr. Nikolai Vitti, Superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District 

Life at Detroit Public Schools Community District 

Vitti struck a personal note early on in our conversation which both surprised and moved me. He spoke of how hard this time has been and how the pandemic has hurt him, both personally and professionally. He loves his job and the fact that he has had to be more of a “COVID manager” than a superintendent of schools these past two years has taken a toll. He shared how in fall of 2020 he struggled deeply about whether to keep schools open as he was one of the few superintendents of a large urban district to put forth “in-school attendance” as the priority. Despite the back-and-forth across multiple stakeholders of differing opinions, in the final hours all found a way to come together and keep schools open with safety measures in place. 

This story struck me as a very thoughtful and humble way to talk about the challenge of protecting students and teachers, negotiating with unions, and ultimately losing face to prioritize children. As someone who hails from Chicago, I had witnessed stand-offs and confrontations between the mayor, the school district, and the Chicago Teachers Union that was political theater at its worst. Vitti’s approach felt refreshingly level-headed. 

Vitti lamented the loss of momentum—enrollment, student attendance, and test scores were on the rise—all backslide in the pandemic. 

The Skillman Foundation & DPSCD 

Reflecting on his relationship with The Skillman Foundation, Vitti spoke of mutual respect. In particular, he noted the power of our board and The Skillman Foundation name. He also later shared that the Foundation has a mixed reputation with some community members due to its contributions to the sunset of DPS and start of DPSCD as well as with the EAA. Yes, the moves helped in some ways and the system was a mess. Yes, he understands the intention. But he mentioned this is one of those past traumas some still mention about The Skillman Foundation—that for the good that was done, there was damage too. He shared it straight and I accepted it as a favor, an honest reflection on the work ahead for me and for us. He spoke of how people with power often don’t acknowledge when they do something wrong and how acknowledging the past is important. We both agreed on this whole-heartedly. 

DPSCD & Charters 

Vitti confided that his approach to charters has softened since he began. He reflected that in the beginning he was pulled into a political debate about traditional public schools versus charters, and that if he’s being honest, “I jumped in willingly because I like a good fight.” I shared, coming from Chicago, I had a very binary understanding of districts representing democratic public education choices and charters as political moves or privatization of education—but having landed in Detroit and spent time with charter leaders, my opinion had changed completely. I told him about a listening session with Black charter leaders and how they feel they are often ignored or used as props in people’s political games. He nodded and sympathized. In the end, he said he has no problems with charters in general but does have a problem with bad charters. He also said when he came in as DPSCD was just coming out of emergency management, a part of his rationale in being fiercely and vocally pro-DPSCD was about recreating needed pride for the District. He is a voracious cheerleader, wanting students to feel great about their schools as they are an extension of self. 

Systems Change 

We talked about The Skillman Foundation is thinking a lot about what systems change looks like and where we have worked on system fixes. I asked him what he would put forth as critical pieces of education systems change. Equitable funding, hands down, number one, he said. Vitti spoke of how Michigan isn’t even in the realm of equal funding, much less equitable funding where students who require the most support receive the most resources. He spoke of issues with the local millage required to get to state funding and how the wealthier suburbs generate so much more to support their schools. He said DPSCD can’t invest in buildings the way they need to, nor can they pay the much higher salaries needed, and the trauma that children come into classrooms with due to living in poverty is not being addressed. Wraparound services are needed desperately. I mentioned learnings the Foundation is steeping itself in to understand how we can best stoke and support systems change and promised to come to him with ideas to talk through together.    

Launch Michigan 

“Launch has been messy, but I agree with most of what’s happening,” he said. I broke in to say that it’s a huge deal to agree with most of this policy agenda. He agreed. He said most superintendents don’t agree because they worry it’s too driven by business interests—but we both agreed having business at the table here was critical. He also is in favor of the accountability pieces that are part of Launch Michigan’s agenda. He feels that he already put systems in place at DPSCD and welcomes cross-constituent advocates in education. 

Case Studies 

Vitti spoke of both Marygrove and Cody Rouge as examples of where there is a groundswell of work happening that could lead to proof points. We agreed this is a good place for us to collaborate more. 

Next Steps: 

  • We will continue to explore ways to enhance the case study work in Cody Rouge and at Marygrove 
  • I will connect with Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, Board President of Detroit Public Schools Community District 
  • I will seek Dr. Vitti’s counsel as the Foundation considers ways to support education systems change  
  • We will reach out to each other actively and often to pull each other into things early for counsel and potential partnership 

And with that, we ended our call and dove into our next meetings. It felt like the beginning of an important relationship of real talk and learning together in the face of major challenges. More to come. 

Angelique Power

Angelique Power is the president and CEO of The Skillman Foundation.

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