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.”

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.”