Detroit Public Schools Community District currently has about 52,000 students, less than a third of enrollment numbers 18 years ago. This stark decline has left DPSCD in unfavorable conditions, resulting in overcrowded classrooms, underfunded programs, curriculums that don’t align, a lack of teachers and resources, among other barriers to student success.
Some of these very barriers are also the reasons why parents opt to take their children out of the public school system in Detroit, resulting in a cycle of enrollment loss.
Dr. Nikolai Vitti, the district’s new superintendent, however, thinks there is a lot of opportunity for the district.
“We already see fewer students enroll in charter, and more charter students leaving for our district,” Dr. Vitti said.
He believes that restructuring the district will help spike enrollment back to numbers that help the district function.
DPSCD, formerly Detroit Public Schools, has had a history of inconsistent leadership. From a state-appointed board in 1999, to multiple emergency managers thereafter, the district had little independence by the time Vitti was hired by the newly empowered local school board.
Public education advocate and Huffington Post writer Joe Gagne blogged that to retain students in public districts, a district must “get loud about what [it] offers,” “celebrate success, and be honest about [its] shortcomings,” and “engage at the local level.”
Gagne’s blog aligns with Vitti’s current plans for the district.
“You’re gonna hear me talk a lot about systems and processes, because when you run a district this size, you need systems and processes,” says Superintendent Vitti, a resident of the Metro-Detroit area. He believes that a large part of DPSCD’s problem is the lack of working systems.
Since 1999, Detroit has had four emergency managers, and seven superintendents. That’s 11 different people bringing in their teams and determining what is best for this “failing district.”
According to the Mackinaw Center for Public Education, the district has fallen from 180,000 students in the spring of 1999, to a staggering 51,979 students in 2017.
Many students, DPSCD lost to its surrounding districts, and others to charter schools that have swept into the city. Wherever these students have went, they have also taken their per-pupil funding that DPSCD survives off of, adding to the financial crisis the district has been in.
So, DPSCD’s main problem currently lies in the issue of recruiting and retaining students.
Vitti said he believes that the solution is getting “it right for every single child, no matter what their circumstances or issues are.”
He believes that many of these issues can be fixed by starting with new systems and new curriculum that will work for all students, and isn’t catered to a certain group.
This means focusing on students with special needs and others who have not been given priority in recent years.
Still, he says, it won’t happen “at scale” until DPSCD can fix some of its underlying issues like staffing, curriculum, and the stigma behind public schooling in the city.
Word-of-mouth will be what tells that story.
“There’s a legacy, pride, and connection in DPSCD, we just have to pull them over the line to show [parents] what’s actually different.”