Detroit superintendent’s wife leaves nonprofit after backlash over contract

Rachel Vitti, a longtime literacy advocate and the wife of Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, has resigned as a director of Beyond Basics, a nonprofit that the district is paying millions of dollars to tutor the most academically challenged high school students.

She resigned July 11 after two years at the Southfield-based group.

The resignation came amid questions and criticism raised by some in the community about the superintendent’s family connection to a company that received a multimillion-dollar tutoring contract in August 2021, funded in part with federal COVID relief dollars. 

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The district disclosed the relationship when it presented the contract for board approval a year ago. When Chalkbeat reported on the issue this June, the superintendent said the company’s strong track record, not his wife’s employment there, is the reason the board approved the contract. Board members contacted by Chalkbeat affirmed that.

But several Detroit residents, some with ties to another tutoring organization that has sought work with the district, have criticized the contract in recent meetings, and the controversy has put the superintendent and the district on the defensive.

“It was clear that the conversation regarding my employment at Beyond Basics was becoming a distraction to the literacy reform effort,” Rachel Vitti said in a statement Friday afternoon. She added: “The results of my most recent accomplishments are evident, and I look forward to continuing my professional work in the literacy effort.”

During the board’s meeting last week, the superintendent shared data showing that 10th and 11th graders tutored through Beyond Basics this past year saw nearly two years’ worth of gains in their reading level.

“Rachel Vitti was a great asset to the Beyond Basics mission, providing one-on-one tutoring to students who need it most,” company officials said in a statement provided to Chalkbeat Friday morning, adding: “We are grateful for the positive impact she made on Beyond Basics, literacy, and the children we serve.”

Beyond Basics has been active in the district for two decades, providing tutoring and other services paid for with philanthropic dollars. The district contracted directly with the group last year for the first time to address academic challenges that have grown since the beginning of the pandemic.

At a meeting Friday morning, the school board’s finance committee approved an extension of the contract for the 2022-23 school year. Superintendent Vitti said the decision to seek a renewal was based on recent literacy results, as well as interest from school principals to continue the partnership.

The extension has to go before the full board, which meets on Aug. 9.

The Beyond Basics program aims to improve students’ reading level by two grades in the span of six to 10 weeks. It relies on Orton-Gillingham, a multi-sensory, structured approach that tends to work for students with dyslexia or other reading problems, and emphasizes phonics-based instruction. The program uses paid tutors to work with students during the school day.

The district’s 2021 contract with Beyond Basics — costing between $9.9 million to $12.62 million — covered small-group and one-on-one tutoring to K-8 students and high schoolers who were two years or more behind grade level. Under federal rules, some of the contracted amount — $2.1 million — will go toward serving private school students in the city.The money left over from that contract will go toward funding the tutoring program in this coming school year.

Critics of the contract include William Davis, president of the Detroit chapter of the National Action Network. He told board members during the July 12 board meeting he was disappointed the board approved the contract knowing the familial connection.

“The superintendent sounds like a paid lobbyist for Beyond Basics,” Davis said.

But those who have been helped by the program said it works well.

“Beyond Basics helped my son,” parent Misharon Craft said at the July school board meeting. Craft’s son, Elijah, was a senior at Central High School when he received literacy support from a Beyond Basics tutor in 2017. “He feels confident enough to approach people without being illiterate.”

Elijah Craft’s experience with the program was spotlighted in a short documentary film titled “A Day in the Life of Elijah Craft.”

“Beyond Basics changed my life,” Elijah said at the July board meeting. “I went from being a number zero to a number 1,000. … Now I’m trying to be a doctor and go into sports medicine.”

At its current enrollment level of roughly 650 students, the superintendent said, Beyond Basics appears to have operationally “hit their limit.”

If the full board approves the contract extension, he said, the district intends to expand Beyond Basics into more K-8 schools, so that they can address literacy gaps earlier. But he said he doesn’t believe that the program will show the same growth that it shows in high school.

The district’s plans for Beyond Basics and its literacy intervention strategy after next year will depend on enrollment numbers in the spring of 2023. If enrollment continues to improve, and per-pupil funding increases, the district could move to hire full-time academic interventionists and contract with tutoring programs to address student illiteracy in specific schools.

Beyond Basics is one of several tutoring programs the district uses to improve literacy. Last year, it awarded a nearly $1 million contract to the company Brainspring to provide literacy intervention for K-3 and virtual school students. Another program, Let’s Read, connects adult volunteer tutors with K-3 students to help them improve their reading comprehension. 

The superintendent said health concerns from the pandemic hampered recruitment of volunteer tutors for Let’s Read, but some advocates of Let’s Read have complained the district hasn’t reached out to many of the volunteers who signed up.

Following Friday’s finance committee meeting, district parent Aliya Moore told board members during public comment she appreciated the transparency about the district’s literacy intervention strategy for the coming year, but believed the controversy surrounding Rachel Vitti’s employment at Beyond Basics could have been avoided if the family connection was better disclosed to the public from the beginning.

“You all are not as proactive as you should be,” Moore said. “This conversation about Beyond Basics should have happened in July 2021.”

Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at [email protected]