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Detroit students headed back to schools with new curriculum, more teachers, and water coolers

Nikolai Vitti
Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

Michigan’s largest school district was back in session Tuesday, as around 50,000 students in the Detroit Public Schools Community District headed back to class.

Students and staff came back to a handful of big changes, some more visible than others.

For one thing, they’re getting their drinking water from water coolers, not water fountains or sinks. That’s the district’s short-term strategy after Superintendent Nikolai Vitti ordered water to all drinking water sources shut off.

Vitti made that call after some initial water test results showed elevated levels of lead and copper from some water sources in 34 out of 50 schools. He decided to shut off all drinking water sources in all schools until all the test results come back.

“If you’re looking at 34 of 50 schools that were tested, statistically we’re looking at probably 60 to 70 with elevated levels once all the testing is done,” Vitti said. “And that was the rationale to discontinue the drinking water.”

The source of the contamination is still unclear and Vitti says a longer-term solution is still up for debate, but he favors the idea of standalone “water stations,” with water lines separate from the school’s piping and all-new fixtures.

“The solution is not a whack-a-mole effect of, ‘Well let’s take out that water fountain or that sink.’ And in between testing we can’t say ‘Well, unfortunately students were exposed to high levels of water or lead,’” Vitti said. “That’s why we discontinued everything, because I was seeing concerns in new schools and old schools.”

Vitti stressed the district undertook the comprehensive testing voluntarily, though no law requires it. “We should be water-testing throughout this country, at every school and every water source,” he said. “Especially in the city of Detroit.”

In 2017, DPSCD said it had corrected the problems that caused 2016 tests to show elevated lead and copper levels in some schools’ water. But district officials say that round of testing only took samples from three water sources in each school, giving incomplete results.

Students and staff will see other changes in DPSCD schools as well. For one thing, the district is better-staffed than in recent years, though it’s still about 90 teachers short of where it should be. And Vitti says that for the first time in many years, all district schools will have art and music classes.

Credit Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
DPSCD schools will have water coolers until the district gets more information about the source of drinking water contamination, and figures out a long-term solution.

“We’ve hired hundreds of new PE teachers, art teachers, music teachers, deans, and assistant principals,” Vitti said.

The district is also debuting a new K-8 math and reading curriculum,which Vitti expects should translate into higher student test scores.

“We know they’re talented, we know they’re capable. They’ve just had inferior curriculum put in front of them,” Vitti said. “And with a stronger curriculum, our students will rise. I think we’re going to see that.”

Mayowa Lisa Reynolds is a first-year principal at the Detroit School of Arts. She says her school is fully-staffed and ready to take on the school year, though on Tuesday she was dealing with a few typical first-day “glitches.”

Reynolds thinks the district’s biggest issue right now is perception. After years of highly-publicized low test scores, financial mismanagement and years of worsening conditions under state-appointed emergency managers, she says many Detroiters simply lost faith in their public schools.

“I think my biggest challenge is to continuously change the narrative…re-branding, to convince the community that what we offer is top-of-the-line,” Reynolds said.

“All the things that parents want in a really good schools, we have. It’s just getting the message that we’re here.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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