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Newspaper Spotlights Detroit Educators
Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, and Sharlonda Buckman, the district’s assistant superintendent of family and community engagement, were recently featured in Education Week for their leadership in increasing parent engagement.
The educators were part of the newspaper’s 2021 “Leaders to Learn From,” which profiled cutting-edge school district leaders across the country who “drew on the foundations they laid and a wellspring of strong relationships to meet their students’ and staff needs during the COVID-19 pandemic and other challenges of the school year.”
Vitti and Buckman were recognized for reengaging and empowering parents and providing families a voice in the school district’s decision-making process around improving education.
In 2017, when Vitti and Buckman joined the Detroit school system they focused on increasing parental and community involvement with several initiatives, such as reinstating Parent Teacher Associations in every school and establishing a Parent Academy where parents can take free classes in areas such as learning English and managing conflict resolution in the home.
The school district also focused on teacher home visits, expanding them even during the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to the district, 60 percent of the district’s schools are now conducting home visits and more than 15,000 visits have occurred in the past three years.
The Work is Personal
For Vitti and Buckman, the work they do to strengthen parental involvement is personal.
Both of them were raised by single mothers in the Detroit area who didn’t graduate high school and did not know how to properly support their children’s education.
“I think one of the reasons why [Sharlonda and I] connect is we are such staunch, uncompromising advocates for our parents,” said Vitti. “Even in a system that sometimes looks down on our parents and doesn’t recognize their value and what they offer, I think we always go back to our own experience and say, ‘Wait a minute, you’re actually talking about my mom right now.’ That pushes us to push the system.”
Engaging and empowering parents has especially been critical this past year as the district has experienced the challenge of educating students during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The district started regularly surveying families and these parent surveys were instrumental in the decision to offer in-person learning during most of the pandemic.
When the district launched the Connected Futures Project this summer to provide all 51,000 students in Detroit schools with wireless tablets and internet access, district officials heard from parents that technical support was also needed.
As a result, the school system created 13 hubs last fall where families could receive tech support as well as wrap-around services such as visits with a nurse or participating in workshops on strengthening family relationships.
Vitti’s and Buckman’s efforts are paying off, with student scores on math and reading assessments improving, student absenteeism decreasing and enrollment stabilizing. In addition, more than 2,000 parents participate in PTAs and approximately 6,000 enrolled in classes through the Parent Academy each year.
“We always say that parents are partners, not the problem,” said Buckman. “We get more done and we get more right when we are working in partnership with our parents.”