Mayor Michael Nutter wasted no time in filling one of the seats on the School Reform Commission, naming Wendell E. Pritchett, the chancellor at Rutgers–Camden, to fill a post.
Pritchett joins the SRC at a time when the organization is experiencing major upheaval. On Monday, two members of the embattled SRC — Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr. and Johnny Irizarry — stepped down from their posts.
“I am very pleased to appoint someone with the qualifications, the imagination and the commitment to public education of Wendell Pritchett,” Nutter said in a statement. “He has demonstrated real leadership in the areas of education, local government and sustainable community development for many years.”
Pritchett served as deputy chief of staff and director of policy for Nutter. He was responsible for writing the city’s Five-Year Plan and Budget, reorganizing the city’s anti-poverty programs and managing operations of the mayor’s office, according to Nutter’s statement.
And then there were two.
After a diligent public and private vetting process that lasted several months, the School Reform Commission has narrowed down to two finalists for the coveted — and controversial — position as the next School District of Philadelphia superintendent.
Both Pedro Martinez and Dr. William R. Hite Jr. are accomplished, esteemed educators who bring a good mix of traditional educational practices and cutting-edge methodology and arrive without any of the questions that surrounded predecessor Arlene Ackerman.
The SRC, under fire for its budget and five-year reorganization plan, which has caused several rounds of layoffs and furloughs, wanted to make sure it got this decision correct, regardless of how painstaking the process turned out to be.
“In January, the five SRC commissioners put together a [superintendent] search team, and put together the job description of the best qualities we thought were important,” said SRC Commissioner Wendell E. Pritchett, the point man for this process. “We then engaged in month-long community meetings, where we put the job description out there. We had facilitators at those meetings who created a final report.
“As a result of that final report [from the stakeholders], we expanded the search team and narrowed [the search] down to 15 people,” Pritchett continued. “We brought in 11 for formal interviews, talked to them about the job description and the specific criteria that the community listed, and judged them on that merit.”
After that, Pritchett said, last month the SRC brought back five of those interviewed, where they met with the search team and with the SRC commissioners; four names were then chosen.
“The SRC search team did more investigation, and talked to them yet again,” Pritchett explained. “Then the SRC decided to bring forward these two.”
It would be hard to argue the qualifications of either Martinez or Hite Jr., one of whom will doubtless become the next leader of Philadelphia’s public school system.
Martinez, currently serving as deputy superintendent of the Clark County School District in Nevada, already went through a public vetting of sorts during yesterday’s public forum. Hite Jr. will go through a similar probing today at 6:30 p.m. at district headquarters, 440 N. Broad Street.
For better or worse, fallowing Ackerman will be a daunting feat, but given Martinez’s background, it seems he has the qualifications for the job. The Clark County School District is the 5th largest in the nation, serving 308,000 students while operating a portfolio that contains 257 schools and academic departments. Martinez is credited for the creation of a program which targeted at-risk seniors, earning the district a 65 percent graduation rate while each of that district’s 49 high schools made significant gains.
Martinez’s academic career is extensive.
Martinez began his life’s work as the director of finance for the Archdiocese of Chicago before leaving to become regional superintendent with Chicago Public Schools, where he later served as chief financial officer, overseeing a $5.2 billion dollar budget; of particular interest, while with CPS, Martinez managed to increase its financial reserves from $200 million to more than $450 million. Student proficiency almost doubled during Martinez’s stewardship of CPS.
Before joining Clark County, Martinez served in a similar capacity at Washoe County School District in Nevada, where he controlled 102 of its schools. Martinez also led aggressive academic initiatives there as well, including the implementation of K–12 college and career readiness program, which considerably increased WCSD’s graduation rate.
Like Martinez, Hite Jr. is a career educator hailed for his turnaround skills.
Hite Jr. currently serves as superintendent of the Prince George’s County Public Schools system in Maryland, where he oversees the nation’s eighth-largest school district, one that educates 135,000 students and contains 200 schools in its portfolio.
Hite Jr. served as assistant superintendent for Atlanta’s Cobb County School District before his PGCS appointment, where he was responsible for 15 schools and the academic adequacy of 18,000 students. But Hite Jr. had his greatest successes in Maryland, where he previously served as interim superintendent before officially being named its leader. Hite Jr. is known for his work on the Intensive Support and Intervention Schools to support the most needy schools and at-risk students, while forging a partnership with the University of Pittsburgh.
Of import, Hite Jr. also led PGCS through a massive reorganization, a skill Hite Jr. will need to rely heavily upon if he is chosen as Philadelphia’s superintendent.
“Their bios speak for themselves. Hite Jr. is a superintendent of a complex school district with a high minority enrollment and led his district through a very difficult time,” said Pritchett. “Martinez is a deputy school superintendent in a district that also has a large minority enrollment and has been a leader in moving their agenda, increasing high school graduation and increasing proficiency.”
If either Martinez or Hite Jr. becomes the next superintendent here, it will continue a long trend of hiring outside the city for its leader. Neither former SRC CEO Paul Vallas nor Ackerman had ties to Philadelphia before their respective appointments. But the search team — and by extension, the SRC — weren’t giving a hometown slide to any candidate.
“Locality was an issue, as five of the candidates were from Philadelphia,” Pritchett said. “Choosing a candidate with Philadelphia connections was important, but in the end, we wanted the best candidate, and [Martinez and Hite Jr.] are the best candidates, given what we are facing.”
And then there was one.
Dr. William R. Hite Jr., is the next superintendent and CEO of the School District of Philadelphia, the School Reform Commission announced Friday.
Hite was one of two finalists for the job. The other, Pedro Martinez, has been named superintendent of Reno, Nevada-based Washoe County School District, that district’s Board of Trustees announced Friday.
However, even before the Martinez’s announcement, Hite seemed the obvious choice.
He met this week with school and city leaders and was endorsed by Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, chairman of the education committee, and Councilman Kenyatta Johnson.
Hite comes to Philadelphia from the Prince George’s County Public Schools system in Maryland, where he oversaw the nation’s eighth-largest school district, one that educates 135,000 students and contains 200 schools.
His resume also includes a stint as assistant superintendent for Atlanta’s Cobb County School District before his PGCS appointment, where he was responsible for 15 schools and 18,000 students.
The Philadelphia school district has over 160,000 students.
In Prince George’s County, Hite was known for his work on Intensive Support and Intervention Schools to support the most needy schools and at-risk students, while forging a partnership with the University of Pittsburgh.
He also led PGCS through a massive reorganization, a skill on which Hite will need to rely heavily as Philadelphia’s superintendent.
Announcing the SRC’s selection, Chairman Pedro A. Ramos said, “Today, we take a giant step toward providing safe, high quality educational opportunities for all Philadelphia children. Dr. Hite is an eminent educator and a proven transformative leader.”
Mayor Michael Nutter stated, “I was very impressed with Dr. Hite’s passion and commitment to educating children, support for the professional development of teachers and principals, and his dedication to working with the broader Philadelphia community. He understands that a high performing, high expectation system of schools is critical to the future of the City of Philadelphia. I would like to thank Wendell Pritchett for leading this effort by chairing the search committee and to all of the members of the community who attended meetings, offered advice and were involved in this thorough process.”
For a decade, Philadelphia’s school superintendents have been lightning rods for criticism.
Hite’s immediate predecessor, Arlene Ackerman, left last year under a barrage of controversy, with criticism from parents, the mayor and City Council for her handling of items ranging from school reform to budget negotiations with the city.
The new superintendent will be faced with a growing budget crisis and ongoing reform efforts.
With a budget deficit that is now poised to jump from $218 million to more than $270 million, the SRC will either have to implement another round of cuts, on top of already deep cuts, or borrow to close its spending gap. Already the district, its students and parents are dealing with several rounds of layoffs and furloughs.
Martinez’ sudden exit from the running came early Friday with a statement from the Washoe County School District.
“We are excited to welcome Pedro Martinez to the Washoe County School District. In addition to strong leadership, Pedro brings a tremendous amount of passion for high-quality education, our 63,000 children, and this community. As we continue to move our school district forward, we know Pedro will continue the important work in our strategic plan and will do that work by talking with everyone in our schools and community,” said Board President Ken Grein in a statement released by the WCSD. “We are thrilled to welcome him, and we know our successes will continue as he assumes this critical role.”
WCSD has 63,000 students and includes schools in Reno, Incline Village, Gerlach and Wadsworth.
Martinez and Hite Jr. survived an extensive vetting process that included more than a dozen other candidates. By the time it was all over on Friday, Hite said he was happy to have been chosen.
“Philadelphia is one of America’s greatest cities, and I am excited about the opportunities that it offers. I look forward to working with the leaders and families of this city as we work to improve the lives of our youth,” said Hite.
While details surrounding the transition are still being determined, Search Team Chair and SRC Commissioner Dr. Wendell Pritchett reiterated the SRC’s commitment to an open and transparent process. “We will make Dr. Hite’s contract public as soon as it is finalized,” said Pritchett.
Mayor, community groups, head of teachers union welcome new superintendent
According to early reports, the School Reform Commission seems to have gotten it right with the selection of career educator Dr. William R. Hite Jr. as its next School District of Philadelphia Superintendent.
A myriad of stakeholders unanimously hailed the SRC for its choice, giving embattled school officials rare praise.
“Today, we take a giant step toward providing safe, high quality educational opportunities for all Philadelphia children,” said SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos last Friday, when the decision had been reached. “Dr. Hite is an eminent educator and a proven transformative leader.”
Hite Jr. comes from the Prince George’s County Public Schools system, Maryland’s second-largest school district with an enrollment of 135,000 and a budget of $1.6 billion.
The SRC has promised to release the details of Hite Jr.’s contract as soon as it is finalized.
Nutter, kept abreast at every stage in the superintendent search, also praised Hite Jr. for his education acumen and dedication to students.
“I was very impressed with Dr. Hite’s passion and commitment to educating children, support for the professional development of teachers and principals, and his dedication to working with the broader Philadelphia community,” Nutter said in a joint statement released by the SRC. “He understands that a high performing, high expectation system of schools is critical to the future of the City of Philadelphia. I would like to thank Wendell Pritchett for leading this effort by chairing the search committee and to all of the members of the community who attended meetings, offered advice and were involved in this thorough process.
High-ranking members of City Council were equally impressed with the new superintendent’s education acumen and his straightforward, yet affable nature. While Hite Jr. seems at ease in Philadelphia, even with taking on such a monumental challenge, veteran members of Council expect Hite to deliver on the hype.
“I am very pleased. He was my choice — and not that the other guy couldn’t do the job — but [Hite Jr.] was my pick from the beginning,” said Education Committee Chair Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, noting that Hite Jr. was very forthcoming about the problems identified in the district, including combating low morale and dealing with special education issues. “But I am interested in what he plans to do about crime and truancy, and how he wants to handle alternative education for the kids who don’t make it out of regular classes.
“We look forward to the opportunity to directly engage him.”
Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, co-chair of Council’s education committee, echoed Blackwell’s sentiments.
“I believe the background of Dr. Hite is important, as he has served as an educator, principal and superintendent. He faced numerous and similar challenges as the Superintendent in Prince George’s County School District that we face here in Philadelphia,” Reynolds Brown said. “That history will be vital and inform how he tackles the numerous budget and academic issues that confront the Philadelphia School District. He also seems well aware that the district cannot face the problems that it faces on an island — that it takes a community effort of all stakeholders. I appreciate that approach. I look forward to working with him as we move the needle forward for our students.”
To form that relationship with students and teachers, Hite Jr. must first form a relationship with the powerful Philadelphia Federation of Teachers union. Previous superintendents had, at best, lukewarm relationships with the union, but PFT President Jerry Jordan seems willing to start anew with Hite.
“On behalf of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and the city’s educators and staff, I congratulate and welcome Dr. William R. Hite as he assumes the role of Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia. In a time of great upheaval for our schools, we are hopeful that Dr. Hite’s appointment signals the beginning of stability and clarity that has been lacking for many months,” Jordan said in a statement released by the PFT. “Dr. Hite’s background as an educator and administrator in urban school districts should serve him well as he navigates the unique challenges facing Philadelphia’s Public Schools. The PFT looks forward to collaborating with the new superintendent to ensure our students and teachers are given the support, tools and conditions that foster high quality teaching and learning.”
Leaders with the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity — long a watchdog organization in the superintendent search — have yet to meet with Hite, but its leadership is looking forward to working with the new schools chief.
“I have not had the opportunity to hear or meet with Dr. Hite, however, some Black clergy, our general secretary and others, have met with him and conveyed that Dr. Hite was very charismatic, and his presentation was very good,” said Black Clergy President Rev. Terrence Griffith, referring to the recent community forum Hite Jr. attended. “It seems that he has done a tremendous job in Prince George’s County in terms of resuscitating that school district.
“I don’t know if being charismatic qualifies somebody, but it goes a long way in reaching a lot of people,” Griffith continued, “but if those people who attended the forum are correct, then the SRC has chosen wisely.”
Transparency — or the lack of it — along with pleas to keep open several public schools, were the themes during Thursday’s School Reform Commission’s monthly action meeting at district headquarters.
While the SRC has trumpeted its degree of transparency during its search for a new superintendent, the powerful Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity believes the SRC could do much more by making the search team more inclusive.
“We want to ensure that a clergy person is on the search committee, and involved in the fair process of developing the criteria for the new superintendent,” said Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity president Reverend Terrance Griffith. “It’s not a balanced search committee and is not an esoteric group, and the community forums are really controlled sessions.”
Griffith, pastor of the First African Baptist Church, along with Bright Hope Senior Pastor Kevin R. Johnson, asked the SRC to put aside special interests that may not necessarily coincide with the best interests of the students, or the cash-strapped district itself.
One of the points of contention was the pay of Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen and the revelation that the school district will spend roughly $1.5 million on a special review of the district beginning next year.
“Clearly, the SRC has an agenda on who it wants [to be the next superintendent],” Johnson said. “The SRC will spend $1.5 million, beginning in February of 2012 and ending in March 2012 for a consultant which we feel will emphasize deregulation. The Chief Recovery Officer has no background in education, who is making $300,000 for six months, so the SRC is spending $1.8 million, but to whose benefit?”
Both Griffith and Johnson said the Black Clergy has historically supported the mayor and school district, but would not do so blindly.
“I told the mayor that we were going to operate on principle …we’re going to represent the interests of the children in the city,” Griffith said. “I told him we wouldn’t act up if the children receive a just and fair education.”
School district spokesman Fernando Gallard said SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos and board member Wendell E. Pritchett were unavailable for comment as of Tribune press time.
There were other contentious issues aired during Thursday’s meeting. State Representative W. Curtis Thomas made an impassioned plea for the survival of William Harrison Elementary School in North Philadelphia.
The school, located at 1012 Thompson Street, has been listed in the School District Facilities Master Plan’s list of recommendations as one of the schools to be closed, Thomas said in his address. Thomas also said it was his understanding that former Harrison students will be fed to the Dunbar Promise Academy, James R. Ludlow Elementary and Spring Garden Elementary.
“I, and the parents of Harrison students, want to know why you are closing schools in North Philadelphia and moving children to schools no better than Harrison?” Thomas asked. “Also, why are you closing public schools in North Philadelphia while approving more charter schools? North Philadelphia seems to be bearing the brunt of the schools scheduled for closing.”
Thomas said it’s hard for North Philadelphia-based schools Harrison, William Penn and Wanamaker to compete when those schools and others were denied equal access as described by law, and the representative noted a study by Pew Charitable Trusts which cites educational adequacy, academic performance, declining enrollment and academic program equity as just a few of the reasons to close a school.
“These schools are faced with the same problems that have been allowed to exist for decades, either willfully or by accident,” Thomas said. “These schools have been struggling without good teachers, security, equipment, books and parental engagement.
“The SRC should be concerned with providing safe, secure schools with competent teachers…. If you can’t provide these things for schools like Harrison, then don’t provide it to any school.”
If the School Reform Commission adopts the Blueprint for Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools, then the School District of Philadelphia, as we have come to know it, will cease to exist.
That – along with the plan to close 40 schools by next summer, followed by an additional 24 over the following four years and the privatization of many services– will help the SRC realize its goal of a balanced budget in five years, said commission members during Tuesday’s press conference at school district headquarters.
“We want to emphasize what we learned, that truth and budgeting is ugly, but it’s better to know what the real deal is,” said SRC member Feather Houstoun. “District-run schools have made progress, but are still behind other urbanized school districts.”
Houstoun joined fellow SRC member Wendell Pritchett, Chairman Pedro Ramos, Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen and Safe Schools Advocate Penny Nixon in making the groundbreaking announcement.
The school district has been under pressure to straighten its financial ship even before news broke that it faced a multi-million dollar budget deficit for the current school year. To put in perspective just how bad the district’s finances are, if left unchecked and allowed to operate at its current pace, the district could face an $1.1 billion deficit over five years.
The district had to do something, Ramos said, because “what we do know is the current system is not working.”
The dynamic and wide-ranging plan addresses two overarching goals through which the district can realize other gains: producing safe, high-quality schools while attaining a balanced budget by fiscal year 2014.
To achieve both, the blueprint – submitted to the SRC by Knudsen - calls for an aggressive reorganization plan and other potentially painful austerity measures.
For example, to balance the district’s budget in five years, the blueprint calls for its operations to cut $122 million in expenditures; similar cuts of $156 million in personnel and $149 million in lowered per-pupil payments to public charter schools will help the district get close to its goal of $400 million-plus in cost savings. That number doesn't include an estimated $133 million in additional revenue – along with $94 million in value from the Actual Value Initiative. AVI receipts are based on real estate taxes, and city council and the mayor are having ongoing debates and hearings about it.
But it was the reorganization plan that drew the most interest. According to the blueprint, the school district operations office would become a more efficient and lean central office, bracketed by the office for Achievement Networks and offices for Charter Management Operations. The new central offices will also house the Shared Services unit.
The Achievement Networks are the group of outside businesses that will vie for contracts offered by the reconstituted district, Knudsen said. Those contracts will last the duration of the five-year plan, and they can be replaced if deemed unworthy or failed to meet certain requirements. These contracts will be performance-based and those awarded contracts must meet certain community and equity requirements.
“There will be relationships of accountability,” Ramos said of the relationship between the SRC and businesses in the Achievement Network. “We are looking for fundamental accountability. What we have now does not produce high quality schools. It was time to grab the moment and make changes.”
The SRC will have several open budget hearings where it will solicit feedback from the community, Ramos said. The first meeting will be held at 5:30 on May 1 at district headquarters, with others schedules for May 2 at Kensington’s CAPA High School and on May 10 at West Philadelphia High School.
“The next step is, we need to hear from the public,” Ramos said, noting that each of the 64 targeted schools will at least operate through the 2012-13 school year. “That process will begin in later summer and early fall; we plan on having several discussions with the community.”
If School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro Ramos has his way, students enrolled in the Philadelphia School District and their parents should know who the new superintendent is before schools open in September.
That’s provided the newly assembled Superintendent Search Team can finish its work in the next eight months.
“There is no greater responsibility for the SRC than selecting the right superintendent,” Ramos said through a statement released by the SRC. “We believe we can complete the search before September, and we will continue until we have the right leader for our district and our system of schools. We will not settle.”
Lorene Cary, Joseph Dworetzky, Feather Houstoun, and Wendell Pritchett will join Ramos as members of the search team, with Pritchett serving as search team leader. Its executive advisors are Lori Shorr and Edward Williams; Fred Ginyard, Kenneth Kring and Robert Wonderling, the president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, will round out the team. And that team certainly has its work cut out for it, given the high-profile dismissal last August of controversial former superintendent Arlene Ackerman.
After her dismissal, Ackerman humiliated and infuriated school and city officials by filing for unemployment – after she was paid $905,000 in her severance package. The SRC, in its settlement with Ackerman, stated it would not resist her attempt to claim unemployment.
All parties involved in the search for a new school district leader promise a diligent, well-executed search that will focus on certain core criteria.
“Effective community dialogue and input will be critical in the selection of our next superintendent,” said Pritchett. “It is important that the search team is transparent and inclusive in its efforts to select the best candidate to sustain and accelerate the positive academic gains of our children we have experienced.
“The search team must, at the same time, be respectful of the privacy interests of persons who are not prepared to be a candidate, or are not under consideration as finalists for the position.”
Count Mayor Michael Nutter as one of those impressed with the SRC’s move to create the search team.
“I commend the SRC on striking a balance between the need for true public engagement and the importance of moving quickly…this community engagement process will help the SRC to learn from parents, students, and stakeholders about what is needed at the school level as they take on the vitally important task,” Nutter said. “The community engagement process will provide invaluable input to be used throughout the selection process and beyond.”