How Detroit Public Schools Community District is Tackling the Teacher Shortage

DPSCD is rising up to the challenge of filling vacant teaching positions with a homegrown approach and an alternative route to certification.
Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

Detroit Public Schools Community District came up with the solution to a major problem it was facing in 2021: The district was having trouble getting enough certified teachers into its classrooms. On the Rise Academy was approved for five years at the end of 2021 by the state of Michigan to streamline the process of getting certified teachers into the classroom outside of the traditional route.

“They did a great job in preparing us,” says Willie Cannon, an On the Rise graduate teaching fifth and sixth grades in the district. He graduated from the program right around the time students were returning to in-person classes after the shutdowns and the switch to remote instruction caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. “They did everything in their power to prepare us for students coming back after being out of school for two years. I am very happy with the way they educated us.”

On the Rise is one of a number of what the state calls “alternative route teacher preparation providers,” options for aspiring educators with a bachelor’s degree who graduated with a GPA of 2.95 or higher. Program enrollees still have to pass the Michigan Test for Teacher Certification through the program, in addition to passing a criminal background check and attaining CPR certification.

There are two pathways through On the Rise. The fellowship program is for aspiring teachers who haven’t yet been certified, whereas the continuing education path is for already-practicing teachers who want to specialize in a particular special education area.

Some similar programs in Michigan include Michigan Teachers of Tomorrow, Professional Innovators in Teaching, and Wayne State University’s Warrior Teacher Program.

On the Rise trains staff through live demonstrations and videos of “effective teaching,” rehearsing “teaching practice or strategy,” and assisting in revising approaches and planning classroom strategy, according to Detroit Public Schools.

“I think it’s a good example of the district taking ownership of a challenge that is national and not necessarily relying on the traditional ways of recruiting teachers,” says Detroit Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Nikolai Vitti. “For us at DPSCD, like other larger school districts, it is always a challenge to recruit and retain teachers, more so than our suburban peers, so the challenge is not a new one. But now the challenge is a bit exacerbated nationally, which only has a more negative impact on us.”

Education has gone through a series of crises in recent years, stemming from understaffing and pay issues, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent mitigation measures, and culture war disputes spilling over from federal politics. According to the Michigan Department of Education (or MDE), the number of vacant positions statewide went from 107 in the 2016-17 school year to 198 in the 2020-21 school year.

The MDE also reports that three-quarters of On the Rise’s 88 fellows (those going through the program) were previously employed with the district. Among those, “66 [fellows], or 75 percent, were previously employed by DPSCD in positions not requiring teacher certification, and 76 [fellows], or 86 percent, identify as Black or African American or Latinx. In comparison, across all Michigan alternative route programs, just under 16 percent of candidates identify as Black/African American or Latinx,” William DiSessa, a spokesperson for the MDE, tells Hour Detroit, citing the department’s 2022 Educator Workforce Data Report.

On the Rise runs on a $600,000 annual budget. Prospective teachers can enroll for free if they stay with Detroit schools for at least six years after completing the program. The district is spending $6,000 per fellow and forgives $1,000 of their tuition per teaching year so they can become a certified teacher without having to pay for it. The catch is that if the teacher completes the program and then leaves the district before the six years are complete, they will be on the hook for the remainder.

“For example, a candidate who has taught for four years, then leaves the district, has $2,000 tuition remaining to pay,” explains Chrystal Wilson, assistant superintendent of communications and marketing.

People from outside the district can apply for On the Rise, but according to the program’s FAQ page, the program’s “primary goal is to develop current employees.” Cannon was a substitute teacher with multiple degrees before applying to the program and plans on attaining more as he continues to teach. He predicts he will spend the rest of his career in the same school district he was raised in.

This story is part of the April 2023 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more in our Digital Edition, and check out for even more education news