Alycia Meriweather never asked to become the superintendent of Detroit's public schools. Yet last year, she found herself unexpectedly thrust into the role.
When Judge Steven Rhodes — the financially insolvent district's fifth state-appointed emergency manager in seven years — took the helm in 2016, teachers and principals within the district had had enough of what they viewed as outsider control of the district, which had been without a superintendent for the entire time. They demanded someone with local and academic ties to lead.
Unbeknownst to Meriweather, she was a favorite for the position, her name circulating among various Detroit teachers' private Facebook groups. "It actually got to the point that people were posting pictures on that site, 'Meriweather for superintendent,'" she says. "People started taking screenshots and sending them to me. And I'm like, 'Where is this coming from? What is this?'"
Finally, Meriweather was formally approached by the teachers' groups to gauge her interest. They didn't want to blow the opportunity — if they presented a name, they needed to know if she would say yes. And they needed to know the next day.
Meriweather says she went home and discussed it with her husband, and prayed for guidance. "I just felt like, I love this district and I love this city so much, that I was being given the opportunity of a lifetime to help the district that I love," she says. "And if everything did go sideways and I did everything I could, I would sleep well the rest of my life because I would have known I gave everything in my power to save the district and to get it to a better place."
In many ways, Meriweather was a natural fit for the role. Born and raised in Detroit, she started attending Detroit public schools at the age of 4, eventually graduating from Renaissance High School. Barring a year in seventh grade when her family lived in Africa and the years she spent at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, she has lived in Detroit her entire life.
After U-M, she returned to the city, teaching middle school science for 12 years. She worked her way up into DPS administration, serving first as supervisor for middle school science, and then going on to roles within the district directing and managing the Detroit Mathematics and Science Center, the Detroit Children's Museum, and Camp Burt Shurly summer camp. Before she was appointed as interim superintendent, she was serving as executive director of curriculum.
As interim superintendent, Meriweather says she created an academic plan based on five pillars: literacy, innovation, career pathways, family and community, and wraparound services. She launched little free libraries where students could leave a book and take a book at all of the schools, and she implemented Monday's Message, where she wrote to the entire staff.
The district's fortunes changed rapidly. By the summer of last year, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a $617 million state aid package that effectively bailed the district out, ending the age of emergency management and creating a new debt-free Detroit Public Schools Community District.
It's also the first time the district has had an elected school board with power, and earlier this year, the board appointed a new superintendent in Dr. Nikolai Vitti.
Meriweather says she doesn't mind that she wasn't picked. "I do take a great deal of satisfaction that we are in a different, better place now than we were a year ago," she says. "I am so thankful that we had the opportunity to serve the district and the city in that role."
Now, Meriweather will continue to guide the district as Vitti's deputy superintendent. She says her goal is to figure out how to align the district's resources to best support students — like finding ways to get glasses for students who can't afford them, or getting police to patrol safe walking paths to school. "Those things may seem like they should not be the school's responsibility, and that's another debate," Meriweather says. "To me, anything that's a barrier to our students being successful is something we need to figure out how to address."
It also includes plenty of positive thinking. "I just really put a lot of focus and effort on communication and making sure that we were sharing good news," she says. "And that's really something that I think is critically important, especially in Detroit and in DPSCD. There are great things happening every day, and sometimes those stories get lost."
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