By Benjamin Herold
for Newsworks, a Notebook news partner
Incoming Philadelphia Superintendent of Schools William Hite and other city education leaders officially kicked off the new school year Friday, focusing on the promise of a new beginning while largely putting to the side the mammoth challenges facing city schools.
"The first day of any school year always gives you the thought that you can accomplish anything," Hite told the students and staff of AMY Northwest Middle School during the District's annual bell-ringing ceremony.
"For school systems, it's always an opportunity to begin anew," Hite said.
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A crowd of more than 100 parents, community members, and dignitaries filled the school's concrete yard during the ceremony.
For parent Benjamin Frazier Jr. and his son Benjamin Frazier III, it was a morning unlike any other.
"I was really surprised for the superintendent to come to my home and have breakfast and talk to me," said the younger Frazier, a 12-year-old 7th-grader at AMY Northwest.
Frazier was one of a contingent of students who took public transportation to school with Hite, part of the District's effort to show that the relocation of the school from its former home in Mount Airy to its new home in Roxborough was a success.
"He seems like he's going to be a great new superintendent," Benjamin said of Hite.
A lifetime of first days for superintendent
A career educator with two children of his own, Hite said Friday's ceremony was just the latest in a lifetime of first days of school.
"I still get butterflies," he said.
The 51-year-old former teacher and principal was tapped to head the District in June, but he won't take the helm full time until Oct. 1. In the meantime, he's been spending a couple of days a week in Philadelphia while continuing to lead the Prince George's County Public Schools in Maryland, which he helped open last month.
In an interview Friday morning, Hite said the focus of his transition has been getting up to speed on the many reports and plans for overhauling the District now on the table, as well as meeting with a wide range of elected officials.
As ever, the focus has been the District's dire budget situation. New cuts likely will have to be announced in the coming weeks, and preparation for next year's budget process has already begun, Hite said.
But this year, he promised, the budgeting process won't just be about cuts.
"One thing I plan to do is really advocate for increased funding for the school district," Hite said. "I plan to be out as the key advocate for our school system and for our children, both at the state level and the city level."
Hite reiterated that the District intends to close dozens of school buildings by next fall, saying the target number of 40 facilities that District officials have put forth for months is an "approximate" number that "could be lower or could be higher."
Later this month, the School Reform Commission will begin hosting a series of community meetings to hear public input on the criteria for identifying schools to be closed.
"It's conversation we have to have," Hite said.
No tolerance for cheaters
Hite also addressed Philadelphia's brewing state-test cheating scandal. A state-commissioned analysis found overwhelming signs of cheating at dozens of traditional and charter schools across the state between 2009 and 2011. Those still under suspicion include 53 District-managed schools. For months, state and District investigators have been interviewing staff from about a third of the schools, hoping to find hard evidence of cheating.
Hite emphasized the need to wait for the results of the ongoing investigations before drawing conclusions. But he vowed a hard line for any adults proven to have cheated.
"When you cheat our children, we have no room for you here," he said.
For the most part, though, the new superintendent and other leaders on hand Friday sought to emphasize the good work that has been happening under difficult circumstances for months.
A District representative said city schools opened the year with only 12 teacher vacancies, all of which were the result of last-minute resignations on the eve of the first day.
And Hite said he toured seven District schools on Thursday and was "taken aback" by the energy he found inside classrooms.
"There was a level of excitement that was inspiring," he said.
Even the selection of AMY Northwest as the host site for the bell-ringing ceremony was full of import.
AMY Northwest as an example
A magnet middle school that has moved from location to location in recent years, AMY Northwest has in recent months been at the center of two of the major reforms under way in the District.
This year, the school is adding roughly 130 students, part of the citywide push to add more "high-performing seats" in city schools.
And earlier this summer, AMY Northwest also moved into the building formerly occupied by Levering Elementary, a consequence of the initial round of school closings and relocations approved by the SRC last spring.
"We wanted to show the public that the work of relocating a school, work that we will have to do in the future, is something that we can do as a district," said spokesman Fernando Gallard.
A number of parents on hand for Friday's ceremony said they were excited about the new school year and new building for AMY Northwest, but expressed lingering concern about some of the logistics associated with the changes.
"I'm glad that AMY has its own building now. I just have some small concerns about the transportation situation," said parent Larry Cooley.
Cooley said his two children now will have to take as many as three SEPTA buses each way between the school and their home in West Oak Lane.