Detroit schools taking aim at crowded classes

The Detroit Public Schools Community District is dealing with crowded class sizes.

Guidance counselors and some district administrators are being moved into teaching positions in the Detroit Public Schools Community District — not just because the district is dealing with big teacher shortages, but because class sizes in some schools are high.

District officials are also contemplating moving some assistant principals into classrooms.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said during a board of education meeting tonight that class sizes are particularly high in some schools and in some grade levels, leaving teachers, principals, students and parents frustrated. 

The district has guidelines that set class sizes at about 25 students for grades K-3, 30 for grades 4-5, and 35 for grades 6-12. Some classes have as many as 50 students.

And simply adding teachers to deal with crowded classes won't fix the problem, given the district currently has a shortage of 150 teachers — a number officials hope to reduce with two upcoming job fairs, including one Thursday.

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"This is important to me on multiple levels," Vitti said. "What I don't want to do ... is give you false assurances that there are quick solutions to these problems."

The class size problem in part reflects a good sign in the district: enrollment is above the 48,309 that was projected in this school year's budget.

A short-term solution: Placing people who are certified teachers — like guidance counselors — into the classroom. Vitti said six counselors are now teaching, though they've been told it's a temporary measure.

Part of the problem is that the way principals are allocating funding for teaching positions in their schools, and the difficulty adjusting when there are increases in enrollment for certain grade levels.

But a big piece of it? The district has a difficult time recruiting people to teach in the district in part because current rules mean teachers hired into the district only receive credit for a few years of their teaching experience, meaning they could face lower salaries.

LaMar Lemmons, a member of the board, said Vitti is getting "paid the big bucks," to come up with a solution to the problems. Vitti, hired by the board in April, is receiving a salary of nearly $300,000 in his first year.

"We need a concrete and ready solution," Lemmons said.

Vitti said he's up to the challenge. But he also countered that the district has shed the number of teacher vacancies from 425 when he started as superintendent in late May to 150 today. This time last year, the district had 260 vacancies - at a time when it had fewer schools. The district grew this year with the return of 11 schools that had previously been part of the Education Achievement Authority.

"We're seeing positive momentum," Vitti said.

Board vice president Angelique Peterson-Maybury raised another concern: That moving people like guidance counselors out of their roles and into the classroom would leave other holes in the district.

"I just want to be mindful of that," Peterson-Maybury said. "We’re kind of just playing a ...game, moving people around. I don’t think the problem is getting fixed. At some point we have to stop the bleeding."

Vitti said a long-term solution that has to be addressed is working with the teacher's union to allow candidates to receive credit for all of their years of experience. At the same time, the district would need to find a way to make it fair for teachers who have stuck with the district during difficult times and taken pay cuts.

The district also needs to look at providing incentives to lure teachers to the district, Vitti said.

Contact Lori Higgins: 313-222-6651, lhiggins@freepress.com or @LoriAHiggins

The district is holding two upcoming teacher job fairs — one on Thursday and another on Oct. 26. The fairs run from 5-7 p.m. at the Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine.

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