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Detroit school board a step closer to final superintendent pick

Apr 3, 2017

Detroit’s school board interviewed the district’s second and final superintendent candidate Monday evening.

Derrick Coleman is the current superintendent of River Rouge Community Schools. He’s a Detroit Public Schools alumnus, and started his career as a teacher and administrator in the district.

He touted his success in a district that’s much smaller than Detroit’s, but has similar demographics.

He admits that at a glance, the districts have similarly poor “achievement profiles,” too. For example, in River Rouge, only 1.7% of students are considered “proficient” in all subjects on the state M-STEP test; in Detroit, that number is 4.1%.

But Coleman says that’s partly because River Rouge attracted hundreds of new students from nearby districts, including Detroit, in the past several years.

“But I can show you data that for one year of instruction, there’s been 1.6 years of growth, as a result of them being with us for a year or more,” Coleman said. He claimed a vast improvement in the River Rouge district’s financial situation, staff morale, and transportation services during his five years there.

Coleman said he would focus on providing wraparound services for Detroit students and their families, rather than create “reactive” school environments focused on security. His key to success with high-poverty student populations: “Create high expectations, provide support for them, and consistently reinforce that support and the expectations.”

Coleman also cited “changing dynamics driven by privatization” in public education, especially in Detroit. He said to retain and attract families in an environment of school choice, the district needs to admit that, and possibly experiment with more “hybrid models” like online learning.

“Families have a wealth of options. We find ourselves in an open marketplace,” Coleman said.

Despite his familiarity with the district, Coleman also promised to spend his initial days at the district’s helm “listening and learning” from current staff.

As he took questions from the board, some Detroit teachers protested outside. They are upset that Alycia Meriweather, the district’s interim superintendent, didn’t make the final cut in the search for a permanent replacement.

Many teachers say that after years of emergency managers running the district, Meriweather is a stabilizing force who’s popular with district staff and the community at-large.

Coleman says he understands why many feel that way, and will deal with it if he gets the job.

“For me it’s just open lines of communication,” he said. “We’re adults and we’re professional. I think they just need assurances from me that they’ll be treated fairly and they’ll be treated as professional, and eventually we’ll be able to move past it."

So far, the board hasn’t seem swayed by the pro-Meriweather voices. It’s expected to make its final selection early next week.

The two finalists are Coleman, and Duval County, Florida schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti. The board interviewed Vitti, a Michigan native, last week.

A third finalist, Milwaukee schools superintendent Orlando Ramos, dropped out of the running just as the board was about to start the final, public interview process.