This article is part of the Daily’s ongoing coverage of the Mackinac Policy Conference. Follow staff reporter Kevin Biglin on Twitter and check the site for more updates.

Nikolai Vitti, Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent, discussed ways in which the business community can help ensure Detroit children succeed in the classroom and are prepared for opportunities after graduation in a panel Wednesday morning at the Mackinac Policy Conference.

Vitti was selected by the school board in April to take over for interim chief Alycia Meriweather.

According to the Detroit News, his duties include overseeing more than 48,000 students, 6,000 employees and a fiscal budget of $660 million.

Vitti said he plans on bringing major changes to the district, with significant ones coming in the 2018 to 2019 school year. Specifically, he said literacy standards must improve, teacher salaries must rise and the business community must continue to help with providing opportunities to students.

In the district, 27 percent of fourth graders are at or above a basic reading level, whereas the national average is 69 percent of fourth graders at or above that level, according to a 2015 National Assessment of Education Progress report. Students are also struggling in mathematics.

“I think access is important, but we have to talk about quality,” Vitti said. “It can’t just be babysitting. It has to be deep intervention and literacy development. I think the opportunity for the school district is to have curriculum that’s directly aligned to the standards. We can’t wait until third grade to make sure students are on grade level.”

A major factor inhibiting educational development, according to Vitti, is poverty. This, he said, leads to social and emotional distress, which wears on many students’ ability to learn.

“We can’t talk about our children and our school system without talking about poverty,” Vitti said. “There has to be ways of overcoming literacy challenges at young ages, early learning opportunities, access to address social and emotional needs, mental wellness needs — those are real factors that get in the way of being on grade level in reading, math science and social studies.”

One way businesses can help is by offering opportunities for students with local companies. Plausible changes, he explained, were for students in 11th and 12th grades to be more focused on pathways for internships and job-shadowing opportunities so students can earn economic advancement, or even earn college credit.

“I think the opportunity in the future is making that 11th- and 12th-grade year into a springboard into college or the world of work,” Vitti said. “The latter part has to culminate with something real and tangible, especially for our children in Detroit, which is either college or the world of work. This is where I think businesses can step in and offer that pipeline opportunity.”

Vitti was upfront in addressing this school year as both a challenge and an opportunity. He, along with Herman Gray, president and CEO of United Way for Southeastern Michigan, and John Rakolta Jr., co-chair for the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, all agreed this school year can bring about tangible, positive change.

Rakolta, who has played a key role over the past three years with the Detroit Education Commission, bringing state legislators together with district leaders, said this is due largely to the state alleving the district of its over $675 million debt.

“You cannot underestimate the value of that,” Rakolta said. “And to the legislature and the governor, we owe them a very big thanks because it was a tough political, uphill battle.”

In order to be successful, Vitti said the district must be financially solvent and transparent. He also said, though economic investment is important to Detroit’s revitalization, there needs to be investment in children as well.

“We lastly have to recognize that investment in children, in the school system, directly and indirectly, is an investment in the city,” Vitti said. “Michigan will never also reach its apex without a strong Detroit. Detroit, ultimately, is the engine of this state and that investment most warranted and needed in youth — in the future generations of employees and citizens.”

Gray said with financial solvency, a newly-elected school board and Vitti in place, it is possible circumstances may finally be able to change for Detroit schools after years of stagnation.

“We have a clean slate, as John pointed out, from a financial perspective,” Gray said. “We have a high-performing elected school board, we have a proven leader who’s getting started — proven with results — and I think there’s a sense in the community that it’s about time and we need to really get to the transformative work of educating our children and youth.”

Gray said businesses that come into schools can help students see new opportunities, which is important for motivating them to succeed. He said the broader community must support such businesses in order to do this.

“It’s hard to achieve something if you’ve never seen it,” Gray said. “We know all children come to the world as blank slates. The difference between their ultimate outcomes, their productivity and who they become is based on the opportunities that are presented to them and the dreams that they are able to dream.”

Vitti went on to explain the only way to improve literacy standards is to boost the quality of teaching, especially in early preschool development. The best way to do this, he said, is to incentivize undergraduates to become teachers by paying them more in order to fill the many teaching vacancies currently in the district.

“We have to be as close to fully staffed by the fall as possible,” Vitti said. “We have to be more strategic about salaries. We have a contract we’re hoping to finalize that will give a bump to teachers’ salaries. We need the best and brightest in undergraduate schools to go into teaching.”

In order to shift the district in a positive direction, Vitti said it must get out of “crisis mode.” Instead of being passive about school reform, he believes the district needs to be more proactive.

“Now it’s time to shift,” Vitti said. “It’s now time to be a strategic, thoughtful, active organization. Not one that is reactive. We’re at an important juncture, and I’m proud and humbled to be the leader of the organization that’s about to step into the next era of school reform. There also needs to be a recognition that despite talk and reality of a city revitalization economically, that will never reach its apex without a great public school system.”

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