Designed to both clear the air between member schools and to forge a new, constructive relationship with the School District of Philadelphia, organizers with Mastery Charter Schools convened a meeting this past week at Simon Gratz High School, in which students, parents and teachers came together to voice their opinions to district superintendent William Hite Sr.
Mastery is one of the city’s largest operators of Renaissance Schools, which the school district established in 2007. The Renaissance Schools Initiative is aimed at bringing transformative changes to the district’s lowest performing schools in order to bring about dramatic improvement in student achievement.
Renaissance Charters are public schools run by outside organizations with funding from the school district, and abide by all public school rules — with increased accountability to the communities they serve. Renaissance Charters are accountable to parent groups that help select which operator will run their neighborhood school, and can also lose their charter if certain performance goals aren’t met.
“Mastery operates six Renaissance Charter Schools, and within the past three years, we’ve seen a dramatic improvement in school culture and an increase in enrollment,” said Mastery Charter Schools Director of Community Growth and Public Affairs Erin Trent. “And so the purpose of the meeting was to build a relationship with Hite. Hite has been here for two months, evaluating the system and talking to parents, community leaders and students throughout his 90-day listening tour, and really focused on opportunities and where the successes are.
“It gave us an opportunity to present the real stories of change that exist at Renaissance Charter Schools.”
Renaissance Charter Schools Mastery operates Grover Cleveland, William F. Harrity, William B. Mann, Franklin Smedley and George Clymer elementary schools; Mastery also manages Simon Gratz High School.
Trent said this is the first time all three groups – teachers, parents and students – had a chance to collectively address Hite, and that sense of unity has inspired a similar synergy between competing renaissance school operators.
“This meeting was a joint effort. We’ve worked very closely with Aspira, which has had incredible success as well with their three-year turnaround. I think a major point is that it’s historic that we came together to change the discourse,” Trent said, noting that charter schools aren’t masquerading as education privatization. “There has been this sense of a very antagonistic relationship within the charter school system between schools, and between parents and institutions. So we wanted to break down those barriers and have an opportunity to change the tone of the conversation so that it’s solutions-driven and focused on partnerships.”
Hite, Trent said, has serious decisions to make, including following through on the district’s decision to close dozens of schools. Still, Hite was very accommodating during the meeting, and according to Trent, Hite, too, appeared more interested in solutions than in finger-pointing.
“I was very impressed by Hite’s response. He was incredibly open and thankful for the opportunity to partake in the conversation. There was deep value in that conversation,” Trent said. “Hite has a lot of challenging decisions to make, and none are easy. He has to find opportunities to leverage the support of parents in making those decisions. I felt this was a forum that allowed him to have the conversation.
“What was really powerful is the meeting was run by parents, students and teachers,” Trent added. “There will be a paradigm shift, and the tone of the conversation has to change if we are to move forward.”
Increasing the level of financial transparency, upgrading communications between all levels and departments, establishing a dialog with parents, and improving the quality of education are at the top of the agenda for new School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Dr. William Hite Sr.
Hite said during a meeting this week with The Tribune Editorial Board he will present his road map on just how to accomplish those goals when he publishes a report detailing his plans in roughly 90 days.
“The next 90 days or so will be spent really looking at every part of the system, trying to engage the public in a process to talk about what they want to see in the system, and what things we do well and don’t do well, and getting into as many schools as possible,” Hite said. “Really try to determine the structures and systems in place.
“At the end of the 90 days, after I have gotten all the information, I want to then tell everyone, ‘This is what I’ve found, here are all of these plans, and I’m going to try to make sense of all this stuff, here’s what I’m going to do about and here’s how you hold me responsible.’ The plan is what I plan to do about it, and how people can hold me accountable for it.”
Hite referred to sorting out several overlapping documents: the Five-Year Reorganization Blueprint, the FY 2012–2013 school budget and the recently released Five-Year Financial Plan. All of these documents were drafted by the district’s chief recovery officer, Thomas Knudsen, who will most likely stay on as chief financial officer, Hite said. Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon appears to be staying on as well.
While Hite’s tenure as superintendent of the Prince Georges County Public Schools system led to that district having a budget surplus upon Hite’s departure earlier this year, Hite said PGCPS shares many similarities and challenges with Philadelphia’s school district.
“It is a tremendous challenge, but I didn’t see it as something that is much different than what many urban districts are facing across the country,” Hite said, referencing the recently-concluded strike by Chicago teachers, and the similar conflicts with school districts in Los Angeles. “In the last three years, [at PGCPS] we’ve had to lay off 1,300 individuals and cut over $300 million out of our budget.
“So many urban districts are struggling with some of the same issues. I like to describe it as the ‘new normal,’ and gone are the days where we’ll see millions in stimulus flow through. We’d most likely see five percent, 10 percent increases over the previous year’s budgets. I think now is the time when we’re really talking about doing more effective things with what we have, and controlling what we have a lot more efficiently and effectively.”
A way to do that is to advocate on behalf of students for more money at the state level. Hite repeatedly mentioned that advocacy is one of his strongest suits — and that he would personally get involved in that process.
“On the other hand, I believe that [state public education officials] have to see an improved product and an improved system to which they’d want to invest - which means [the school district] has to be a lot more efficient, a lot more transparent and a lot more effective with the monies we have,” Hite said. “I think you have to prove your worth to some degree at first, and that’s the other side of it. So that it’s an advocacy on one side, but on the other side, it is a description that we are putting this house in order and moving as much money as we can to support students in schools and in classrooms.”
Hite, who knows former superintendent Arlene Ackerman well, and is aware of the controversy her tenure and subsequent departure caused, understands that his administration will face close scrutiny, especially if Hite doesn’t reach the more easily attainable goals — which could produce tangible, if tiny, gains. But Hite said if the goals are set up properly, and with the right focus, then students would be among the first to embrace them.
“Naturally, my goals are centered around making sure that students have the types of opportunities beyond high school, and the skills to do the things they want to do once they leave high school, whether that means moving into the work world or into higher education … there’s 140,000-plus students still being educated in this city, and so one can’t give up hope, because then we’re giving up on the students here,” Hite said, noting that he’s used to answering questions about the high turnover rate for superintendents. Hite was the seventh superintendent of PGCPS had during Hite’s 13 years there. “So I think when you start to get at all those structural issues, all of the inefficiencies, all of the disbelief and all of the skepticism, one at a time. And I think you start dealing with those issues one at a time.
“If individuals don’t have faith that the school system can deliver on something, then perhaps we don’t try to do a hundred different things and not deliver any. Perhaps we try to do one or two, and do it really well — so we are actually delivering a product.”
Given all the challenges facing the district, it is fair to question Hite’s motives for even considering the job in the first place. But beyond these problems of today lies optimism of a better public education tomorrow, and Hite said that’s why he came here.
“I am interested in making a difference for all children, and I see this as a tremendous opportunity. The fact that we have no money, the fact the schools are low-performing, the fact that there’s a high dropout right, the fact that Latino males are dropping out faster than anyone else, the fact that many of our schools are in disrepair — we have to think differently; and that’s the opportunity part of it,” Hite said. “I tell staff members that this will be tough, but I appreciate their work. I acknowledge them. I want to hear them, and I want to get to see them in their classrooms as much as possible. This is how we begin a dialog, knowing we can’t continue down the same path.
“This not about me,” Hite continued. “This is about all those young people we educate, and we all have to believe in them.”
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.
The key to eradicating crime and violent behavior, say organizers with the nonprofit Fight Crime: Invest in Kids Pennsylvania, is to invest more resources in early care and child education.
That was the theme earlier this week as Fight Crime visited the Penn Alexander School to unveil its findings in the multi-point plan, “High-Quality Early Care and Education: a Key To Reducing Crime in Pennsylvania.”
The plan points to numerous nationwide studies which found that in Michigan, at-risk children not enrolled in high-quality programs were five times more likely to be chronic offenders by the age of 27; another report, this one based on Chicago, found that at-risk kids not participating in the city’s child-parent center programs are 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime by the age of 19.
And since the School District of Philadelphia’s enrollment of at-risk/economically disadvantaged children currently sits at 80.6 percent – or 117,749 students – it only made sense for Philadelphia to be the first stop in a statewide mission, said Fight Crime Pennsylvania State Director Bruce Clash.
“Philadelphia is obviously important because it’s a big city, and important because so many kids here have unmet needs,” Clash said. “And that’s a travesty for them, their families and the community at large.”
Clashed praised the efforts of District Attorney Seth Williams in embracing the findings and for attending the unveiling, along with district superintendent Dr. William Hite Sr. and other elected and appointed officials.
Williams and Hite were both unavailable for comment as of Tribune press time.
The report illustrates in great detail the correlation between the lack of education and criminality and the positive effects reaped when limited resources are properly utilized, vital when only 17.6 percent of eligible 3- and 4-year-olds have access to high-quality publicly funded pre-K programs throughout the commonwealth. The report also shows that Pennsylvania spends more than $2.3 billion on incarceration, but only $340 million on early childhood education.
“Law enforcement leaders across Pennsylvania want to make sure more Pennsylvania children receive high-quality care and education in their early years – the help they need to succeed in life and avoid later crime and violence,” read a portion of the findings. “Despite strong evidence that high-quality early education can reduce future corrections costs in Pennsylvania and nationally, spending on corrections far surpasses spending on early education.”
The report further shows that, of criminals labeled chronic offenders by the age of 2, 35 percent of them did not attend or participate in preschool programs; conversely, only 7 percent of those that did attend such a program went on to be considered chronic offenders.
The report suggests several ways to cut off young criminal pipeline, including increasing the number of quality teachers, better funding for federal early care, Pre-K and headstart programs, better implementation of the Child Care and Development Block grant and more school districts taking part in the federal “Race To The Top” program.
“The thing most criminals have in common is the lack of a high school education. Not everyone who doesn’t get a diploma commits a crime, but there are more likely to commit a crime and be incarcerated,” Clash said. “So we targeted early childhood, with 40 years of research showing us that if you reach at-risk and economically disadvantaged children, 44 percent more were likely to graduate because they have a foundation to build on, develop, grow from and attain the skills they need in life.”
Clash said inroads are being made, citing the recent, multi-million dollar funding of the state’s “Pre-K Counts” program and the various Headstart initiatives. Those two programs are funded through a series of line items in the state budget.
“Both of these funding streams are used by the School District of Philadelphia and by hundreds of school districts throughout the state, and many other districts use their own money for these programs,” Clash said. “Momentum continues to grow, but the problem is that only 17 percent of all Pennsylvanian three- and four-year-olds receive publicly-funded, high-quality Pre-K programming.
“And in Philadelphia, it’s a huge, unmet need, since 3,100 kids are at the poverty line do not have access to pre-K programs because they are on a wait list,” Clash continued. “So this report makes the case of why law enforcement is so concerned about getting access to pre-K young kids. Long-term arrests come down, and behaviorally, the data shows a reduction in early aggressive behavior.”
The School District of Philadelphia has officially entered the $400 million “Race to the Top” competition, meaning it joins 892 other school districts nationwide in attempting to reap the biggest reward for gains made in reforming the way the district delivers education.
The district, along with 33 other districts throughout the Commonwealth, has applied for several grants, with the district specifically applying for two grant blocks — one in the $10 million to $20 million range, and the other in the $30 million to $40 million range.
The $400 million is earmarked by the United States Department of Education to help with localized reformation projects, which include personalizing education to fit the more specific needs of students, closing the achievement gap and further preparing students — especially those in high school — for college or entry-level positions in the workforce.
That would certainly help in Philadelphia, as the district is in the midst of transferring power to incoming superintendent Dr. William Hite Sr. On many levels, the district is still struggling with transparency issues of its own, as it faces a budget deficit approaching $300 million and the austerity measures that the deficit has forced.
“I believe the best ideas come from leaders at the local level, and the enthusiastic response to the Race to the Top district competition highlights the excitement that districts have to engage in locally designed reforms that will directly improve student achievement and educator effectiveness,” said United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a statement released by his office. “We hope to build on this nationwide momentum by funding districts that have innovative plans to transform the learning environment, a clear vision for reform and a track record for success.”
According to the Department of Education, these four-year grants will range in worth from $5 million to $40 million, and competition will certainly be stiff, as the department will only grant up to 25 of these awards.
Pennsylvania has long participated in the Race to the Top competitions. As recently as last year, the commonwealth received nearly $42 million in Race to the Top funds.
“I know, from my time spent as a teacher and with my own two children, that a one-size-fits-all approach to education does not create a successful learning environment,” Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett said when he announced last year that Pennsylvania received $41,326,299. “Our students need quality options that fit their academic abilities and their aspirations for the future. We must have educators who are prepared and capable of meeting the needs of our diverse student population.”
Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis echoed much of Corbett’s sentiment when the award was announced.
“The focus of our grant application is to improve public education for every student,” Tomalis said. “The funds awarded to Pennsylvania will support the work already being done by Governor Corbett and the department to ensure that, regardless of ZIP code or socioeconomic status, every child receives an education that provides them with the opportunity to be successful.”
Perhaps portending what the commonwealth would do with the funds if it receives Race to the Top grants this year, Tomalis previously stated that the fund would mostly be used for pellucidity.
“As a result of the Race to the Top Grant award, funds will be allocated to increase transparency at Pennsylvania’s public schools,” Tomalis said when last year’s award was announced. “Ultimately, the goal is to provide parents with the information necessary to make informed decisions regarding their child’s educational future.”
Although it isn’t the full alternative plan to School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Dr. William Hite Jr.’s “Action Plan v 1.0” — that will come later — longtime Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church Senior Pastor, the Rev. Dr. Alyn Waller, is set to present the church’s Summary Report on the school closure plan to City Council’s Education Committee on Tuesday.
Titled “Voices From the Inside: Heart, Soul and Mind,” and crafted by church’s nine-member education committee, the summary breaks down the process so far, along with outlining five broad recommendations.
Those recommendations include publishing the capital improvement recommendations and all related data on every effected school; excluding high schools from the original list of closures recommended in the Facilities Master Plan; considering alternatives proposed during community meetings; implementing an inclusive, community-driven engagement scheme and finally, modifying and reforming what factors will be considered when deciding to close a school.
“We have a report coming out that raises very serious concerns about the process, and the outcomes from that process, that has been used to start what is called ‘right-sizing,’ but is in fact school closings, reported as 37 school closings — but really impacting 67 schools,” Waller said during Monday’s editorial board meeting at The Tribune. “And this is just the beginning a process of school closings, but it is a process that has been disingenuous. The reason I am in it is because, for the last 19 years as pastor of Enon Tabernacle, we’ve been involved in public education.”
Although Waller said he doesn’t have an acrimonious relationship with the district and the School Reform Commission. He did say that at a previous meeting which the superintendent attended, Hite had endorsed several aspects of the plan, which will be unveiled after the SRC completes its session of six community meetings and three SRC hearings on the matter.
While complimentary of Hite — and noting that Hite walked into a virtually untenable situation, and that the financial morass the district is trying to work its way out of existed long before his arrival — Waller said there is no denying a racial component in the manner in which the schools were selected.
“The way they have gone about making the choices shows a racial disparity. In the [forthcoming report], we will show that there is underutilization in the Northeast that was not addressed at the same rate, and a preponderance of underutilization in the North and Northwest, but seemingly, that’s where all the impact happens,” Waller said. “We show in the report that, by using the school district data, that something should have happened in the Northeast that did not. So, that racial implication — for those of us who have been in Philadelphia — it’s fair to raise questions around that.”
According to Waller, the district used low attendance as one of the main factors in determining which schools to close, but that a proper right-sizing of the district would require the district to look at overpopulated schools as well. The summary report lists 13 over-capacity schools that were not included in Action Plan v.1.0. For his part, neither Hite nor the SRC ever mentioned overcrowding as one of the factors to shut down a school.
For Waller, race and overcrowding are but two components, and there’s also the very real issue of safety and students — some as young as first-graders — being forced to cross turf, neighborhood and gang borders to attend school.
“Safety is a critical issue,” he said. “One of the challenges of that area, of shutting down Germantown High School and adjusting some of the elementary schools, or that a child will have to walk through [neighborhoods like] Brickhouse, Dogtown, Haines Street, Pulaskitown. Those things were not considered in the district’s plan, because quite frankly, they do not know that culture. So, safety needs to be considered. Then there’s the amount of traffic guards, school guards, crossing guards, safe corridors and the needless crossing of Broad Street by an elementary school student.
“We are arguing that, because not all of the [concerns] were considered, the district needs to take a little bit more time, and give Dr. Hite the room and resources to do his job. I believe Hite has been brought and is hamstrung. Now we put his face on the [Facilities Master Plan], but those of us who has been invested in the education conversation know that this plan looks like and smells like things we’ve heard way before Hite got here.”
School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Dr. William Hite Jr. affirmed and elaborated on the December announcement of a massive district-wide reorganization with the release of his long-promised “Action Plan v 1.0,” which goes into great detail on the benchmarks the district hopes to achieve.
Hite’s plan also clarifies the method by which to gauge the District’s progress, by tracking the percentage of students who: score a combined 1550 on the SAT/21 on the ACT; score at least 3 on the AP exam or 4 on the IB exam; achieve a grade of “C” or better in geometry; who obtains a “B” or better in algebra I and, finally, score at the advanced level PSSA reading and math exams.
“This action plan emphasizes solutions to basic problems based on evidence and facts,” Hite said via a statement released by the District. “We must use data and research more effectively than we’ve done in the past. We are getting back to the basics — doing what works and doing it well.”
The plan revolves around two “anchor goals,” the first of which is to improve academic outcomes for students both in the traditional public schools and the charter schools the District facilitates — the second ensuring the fiscal stability and sustainability of the district.
Along with the two main anchor goals, Hite’s plan includes six strategies: achieve and sustain financial balance; improve student outcomes; develop a system of excellent schools; identify and develop committed, capable people; become a parent and family-centered organization; and, lastly, become an aligned, accountable organization. Each separate strategy has its own subset of checkpoints that must be reached along the way for the strategies to take effect and for the two anchor goals to be reached.
The third strategy alone — developing a system of excellent schools — has nine checkpoints, including improving school safety and climate, as well as implementing the recommendations in the Facilities Master Plan.
The Facilities Master Plan and the recommendations Hite publicized last month have drawn considerable criticism from a litany of grassroots organizations, including the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, which released a statement blasting the Action Plan.
“The Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools appreciates the diligence that Superintendent Hite and his team have shown in compiling their action plan. Some elements of that plan — meeting the needs of special education students, enhancing support for English language learners and encouraging parent/family input — are welcome commitments,” read the statement from PCAPS. “However, it is unfortunate that Dr. Hite and the School District continue to insist upon closing dozens of local schools as a central part of this effort. We acknowledge that some of these proposed closures may turn out to be justified in the long run. However, until a community impact study is completed and released to the public, taking the radical step of closing more than three dozen schools — most of them in already struggling neighborhoods — is drastically premature and potentially harmful to communities across the City.
“Instead of shuttering schools, slashing jobs and displacing thousands of students, we should be working to turn these schools into community hubs that partner with nonprofits, public officials, universities, hospitals and the business community to offer full wraparound services that meet a range of local needs.”
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan — long a critic of the District’s austerity measures — said while Hite’s Action Plan took quite a deal of heavy-lifting to complete and that the PFT agrees with some of Hite’s findings, Jordan remains disappointed in the district’s overall approach.
“The troubling part is that what could be a promising start to meaningful education reform is already jeopardized by a commitment to the “austerity model” of education reform. It doesn’t cost much to form an idea, like changing assessments of student performance or providing more challenging coursework. Providing basic classroom materials and the educators to implement these changes, however, will require a significant increase in resources,” Jordan said. “Our neighborhood public schools are the victim of a decade of deep and sustained cuts to education funding. Over time, these cuts haven’t done anything to improve education, and have led to an exodus from Philadelphia’s public schools that have laid the groundwork for yet another round of building closures.”
Hite addressed the financial ramifications in the Action Plan, noting that the District must balance its books if it is to deliver on the promises of academic achievement.
“The District has recurring expenses that exceed its revenues by over $250 million per year, amounting to a $1.35 billion dollar deficit over the next five years. (It is important to note that the budget crisis can quickly become a cash crisis if the structural deficit is not addressed in time for the 2013–2014 budget.)
This deficit was created by a confluence of factors — reduced state funding, a broken system of local tax assessment, charter-driven growth in the total public school population without new revenue and failure to reduce spending commensurate with the reduction in revenue,” read a portion of the Plan. “Though the District has made significant cuts to operating costs in recent years, our expenses are increasing due in part to structural personnel costs (such as those incurred from employee pensions and healthcare), and ‘stranded’ overhead costs (the costs we must continue to cover even when students move between schools or out of District-run schools).
In order to remain true to our anchor goal on academic outcomes, we must ensure financial viability and sustainability by achieving the savings detailed in the Five Year Financial Plan and make smarter decisions about how we use our resources.”
The District will convene nine community meetings this month to apprise students, parents and stakeholders on the Action Plan, with the first meeting scheduled for 6 this evening at Dobbins High School, 2150 W. Lehigh Ave. The other meetings will be held on Wednesday, January 9 at Edison High School, 151 W. Luzerne St.; Tuesday, January 15 at Martin Luther King High School, 6100 Stenton Ave.; Wednesday, January 16 at Bartram High School, 2401 S. 67th St.; Tuesday, January 22 at Overbrook High School, 5898 Lancaster Ave.; Wednesday, January 23 at University City High School, 3601 Filbert St.; Thursday, January 24 at Martin Luther King High School; Tuesday, January 29 at South Philadelphia High School, 2101 S. Broad St., and Wednesday, January 30 at Northeast High School, 1601 Cottman Ave. All meetings begin at 6 p.m.
“This will not be the final statement on how I will operate throughout my time as superintendent, nor should you expect a dazzling array of ideas with no plan for action,” Hite wrote in the Action Plan’s executive summary. “Given the challenging reality of the District’s finances, this document intends to signal our priorities in light of what evidence and research tell us will provide the best return on the public’s investment.”
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.”
City Council had little say about reorganization
A lack of input from the community and the city’s powerful politicians may prove fatal to the School District’s new plan to close more than three dozen schools across the city.
“I think the process is flawed,” said Council President Darrell Clarke, noting that, according to school officials, the process of selecting which schools would close has been going for more than a year. The public just learned the details in December. “You should have started having this conversation early on.”
Several members of City Council made similar arguments — chiding the district for its handling of the plan. Council members faulted the plan on several grounds, worrying that the closings didn’t take into account the impact those closings would have on the surrounding neighborhood, or how students would be affected when moved to different neighborhoods, or by the distance some will be required to travel.
“There are a lot of questions about how this was done,” said Jannie Blackwell, head of Council’s education committee. Eight schools in her district are expected to close. “It’s just not tightly enough put together.”
Despite repeated attempts, Superintendent William Hite could not be reached Thursday for comment.
Blackwell said she hopes to hold hearings on the plan next month. The dates are still up in the air but she told the Tribune she wanted to schedule them on the first or second Tuesday of February.
Every council member polled by the Tribune agreed that some schools will have close.
“I certainly understand the School District’s position and financial circumstances,” said Councilwoman Cindy Bass. “We all know that they have been bleeding for many years.”
But, all three said they’d like to see the plan delayed.
Clarke, speaking as a representative of his district, and not council president, said he didn’t oppose “right-sizing.” And, Blackwell acknowledged that some schools will have to close.
No one blamed Hite, who has been in the District’s top position only since September.
School District officials, last month, released a list of 37 schools they expected to close due to falling enrollment. The plan would shift about 17,000 students to different schools. School officials contend it’s necessary for the cash-strapped district to close schools in an effort to save money.
However, the council president is not particularly pleased that Council was not part of the conversation as school officials drew up the proposal.
“They needed to have conversations outside of the School District family,” he said.
Doing so would have helped the District look beyond its present circumstances, said Clarke. As an example, he spoke about plans to close L.P. Hill Elementary and Strawberry Mansion High School because the number of students there has been dropping. However, he said, at least 194 new houses are being built near the school, which could bring a minimum of 200 students to the neighborhood.
“They had no idea about that,” he said. “This decision was made in a vacuum. There was a bean counter behind it.”
His sentiments were echoed by others on Council.
Blackwell said the plan didn’t seem to take into account the reality for many students in Philadelphia.
“Kids in this district can’t just go anywhere. We’ve got enough crime now — we don’t need that kind of crime,” Blackwell said.
“They have not given adequate thought or preparation to those closures,” she said, adding that she hopes to see a one-year moratorium on implementing the plan.
As an example she cited plans to close T.M. Pierce Elementary School and move students to E. Washington Rhodes Middle School.
“Walking from Pierce to Rhodes will be quite a challenge for young people,” she said, noting that the area between the two buildings was troubled by crime and blight.
Though he expected a broader discussion among council members, Clarke said this week, there has been very little group discussion so far.
Nearly a third of the schools expected to close are in North Philadelphia.
Ten of the 37 schools targeted for closing are in Clarke’s Fifth District. Two are in the adjoining portion of the Eighth District, represented by Bass, who has a total of five targeted schools in her district.
Clarke wondered why so many closings were planned in such a small area.
“There is a disproportionate number of schools to be closed in North Philadelphia,” he said.
That could seal the fate of an already troubled area.
“Realistically, the likelihood of a re-use of some of those buildings is extremely limited,” he said. “They close these schools down, and they walk away.”
That adds to blight and steers families away from the neighborhood.
“The first question always is ‘where are the schools?’” Clarke said.
The council president said that Hite briefed him personally on details of the plan the day before it was released to the public in a brief telephone conversation. Bass and Blackwell said they too had been briefed the day before the public announcement but none were consulted during the process of putting the plan together, they said.
Council’s options when it comes to influencing School District policy and SRC decisions are limited. Members can, and often do, give their opinions — but beyond that there is little they can do, aside from slashing school funding.
Council approved more money for the district in each of the last three years though in the last two budget cycles the city has sought to increase its power by first instituting a cooperative agreement with the district and then, last year, by awarding a portion of school funding as a grant, giving Council the opportunity to withhold funds.
Clarke said he expected the tug of war over money to intensify this year.
“We have no ability to influence operations,” he said. “The conversation, as to their ability to get more tax revenue out of the city, is going to be extremely limited.”
Blackwell was more explicit.
Noting that the SRC will not vote on the proposal until March she pointed out that Council will be heading into budget negotiations at the same time and the issue would be fresh in members’ minds.
“I am hopeful that we get some of this stuff worked out because if we don’t — you’re doggone right — we’re going to have a real problem here,” she said.
Clashes between city politicians and school officials are not new.
Former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman left the District after several high profile battles with the administration and City Council. Ultimately, she lost the support of many elected officials including Mayor Michael Nutter and several members of City Council, a fact that led to resignation.
Clarke urged residents to continue to oppose the plan.
“I think the community should continue to show its displeasure,” he said, adding that he too supports a moratorium on closings.
“We are hopeful that in the end, we can have not all of these schools close,” Blackwell said. “We’re hopeful the District will reconsider and have community input because they know what works in their area and what doesn’t.”