A Florida superintendent brings his parental choice playbook to Detroit

Detroit Public Schools face a familiar problem. Enrollment has declined as families shift into the suburbs and charter schools proliferate.

But their new superintendent is a Florida import with a familiar playbook.

After enrollment declines that saw the student population shrink by 71% in almost 15 years, officials from the Detroit Public Schools Community District are embarking on a far-reaching strategy to fill their schools.

They will fan out into the city, canvasing neighborhoods. They will provide more before-and after-school care in some areas. They will train principals to more effectively market their schools. They will look to create new programs, such as a virtual school, to attract students. They will make it easier for students to get to some of the district’s premier specialty schools. And they will make it easier for parents to enroll their children.

Nikolai Vitti is expanding on strategies he honed as leader of Duval County Public Schools.

As the Florida Times-Union reported in 2013:

In coming years, the district will have to compete with charters to regain the students who left, Vitti said. There’s some glimmer of hope: More than 300 students who originally enrolled in charter schools this year will instead attend a traditional public school. To compete, district schools must improve the service it extends to parents, work to make schools safer and create its own batch of niche programs, Vitti said.

He noted that district officials have applied for a magnet school grant that, if awarded, they will use to create a military magnet at Stilwell Middle School. There are also plans for single-gender preparatory schools, Vitti said.

“What the charter movement has shown is that we can’t continue to do what we’ve been doing,” he said. “What we’re looking at is the reality of competition.”

Some of those new magnet schools have since begun to flourish.

There are two ways to expand to the proliferation of charter schools: Fight the tide of parental choice, or ride the tsunami by creating new and better options. Vitti is among the current and former Florida superintendents who’ve embraced the latter approach.

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