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Otis Hackney: The man at the heart of city’s strategy

As the mayor’s chief education officer, the former principal will help build “community schools” around Philadelphia.
  • hackney harvey finkle
    Harvey Finkle

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Otis Hackney knows that it’s one thing to find success as a leader and quite another to create a system that helps other leaders succeed.

But that’s one of his tasks as Mayor Kenney’s top education aide: to assist neighborhood school leaders in getting the same results he got at South Philadelphia High School, where graduation rates rose by double digits in his five years as principal.

For others to replicate that success is no small task, Hackney said. It will require creativity, discipline, and the sensitivity needed to create not just a set of rules, but a true school culture.

“I was walking through the courtyard in City Hall and I saw about 20 of my former students, coming from the Flower Show,” Hackney said. “And they said, ‘We miss you! We miss you for Town Halls.’ I said, ‘Y’all miss me yelling at you and telling you to come to school on time?’ They said, ‘It’s not the same. They still kind of do it, but we miss when you do it.’”

Hackney, whose title is chief education officer, is the point man for the Kenney administration’s priority to turn Philadelphia’s neighborhood schools into “community schools” that network with neighborhood groups and institutional partners to offer social, health, recreational and other services to students and their families.

He won the job on the strength of his work at Southern, where from 2010 to 2015 he brought in a range of community school techniques, helping stabilize what had been an embattled, violence-plagued school.

“That’s one of the major factors in why I was chosen to do this work,” Hackney said.

Holding weekly Town Halls to reinforce expectations for the entire student body was just one tactic. He also relied on strong internal data management, careful coordination among partners, and constant review and assessment of staff and partners to hold them accountable.

During his time there, enrollment increased, attendance improved, and the graduation rate went from 48 percent to about 62 percent – close to the citywide average.

“Many people would never believe that Southern [graduation rates] could be that high. It’s about maximizing every resource at your disposal,” he said.

Different approaches

Hackney doesn’t expect other schools to replicate Southern’s success without funding that is dedicated to the task.

This year, the Kenney administration has asked City Council for about $4 million to plan and launch a half-dozen community schools this summer. They hope for an estimated $39.5 million over five years to create a total of about 25.

“We need a budget,” Hackney said. “You can’t take a one-off from one Philadelphia school and say, ‘we can replicate that without resources.’ Resources matter.”

But principals will have wide leeway to organize their partnerships and lead their schools as they see fit, Hackney said. Their challenge will be to constantly adjust practices, even as they keep expectations consistent – for staff, providers, and students alike.

“You can argue with me [as a principal] over a rule,” said Hackney. “But you can’t win an argument with me over my expectations. You can argue about when schools start. But you can’t argue with my expectation that you come to school on time.”

As Hackney takes his post, the Kenney administration and the District are pursuing two distinctly different strategies for improving school performance.

Broadly speaking, the District’s vision for “turnarounds” is to focus on management reforms, staff turnover, and classroom changes. They want principals to be able to pick new staff who “buy in” to new approaches, including data-heavy classroom techniques.

The Kenney administration’s focus is on providing existing school staffs with new supports through the community schools model.

External partners – such as those who can help with behavioral health, family, and legal issues – can free staff to focus on academics, Hackney said. Union work rules and contract constraints aren’t an obstacle, he believes, as long as principals give teachers the right leadership, resources, and working environment.

“You don’t have to ask them to go above and beyond,” Hackney said. “I’d say, I just need you here from 7:50 to 2:54. Anything beyond that is appreciated … [but] I need you to do a great job in between the bells.”

A focus on high schools

The District’s turnaround model also has focused primarily on elementary schools. Its “Promise Academy” model for neighborhood high schools has been underfunded and uneven. Meanwhile, it has created a host of new high schools, both District and charter.

But traditional neighborhood high schools remain at the core of the District’s portfolio. They educate about 19,000 students, about as many as attend charter high schools. Neighborhood high schools enroll over half the total number of students in District-run high schools.

Their challenges are unique because their responsibilities are unique: As schools of last resort, they must take any student from their catchment who does not succeed elsewhere and must accept new students constantly throughout the year.

That means they get the students who are hardest to keep on track to graduate. A recent report from the advocacy group Public Citizens for Children & Youth, Separate but Unequal, found that neighborhood high schools have disproportionately high numbers of special education students, English language learners, and students involved with the Department of Human Services.

They’ve also been hit hardest by the ongoing fiscal crisis, PCCY found, having “the highest rate of principal and teacher turnover” and “the most significant reductions in staffing.”

Among the report’s findings:

• Neighborhood high schools have had an average of four or more principals since 2009.

• Neighborhood high schools have lost more teachers than any other school type, with 400 positions eliminated between 2010 and 2014.

• Almost half of neighborhood high schools – nine – have no assistant principal.

• More than half the neighborhood high schools’ counselors were laid off over four years, from a total of 91 in 2010 to just 35 in 2014.

All that leaves staff and principals badly overstretched and leaves students with little incentive or support to stay on track to graduation, Hackney said.

“Students in high school now only know schools from a deficit model,” he said. “They haven’t been to a school that’s rich and robust with programs, with staff, with opportunities.”

Simple techniques, rigorously applied

To Hackney, reversing that trend is daunting, but not impossible.

The practices he followed at Southern – collecting data, building networks, monitoring progress, and making adjustments – are straightforward. But they must be rigorously and consistently followed, he said. As a principal, Hackney would:

• Constantly update his student roster so that he knew exactly when students were enrolling or departing.

• Host weekly, schoolwide “Town Halls” to communicate with students.

• Host monthly meetings with external partners to compare notes, discuss caseloads, and coordinate services.

The central goal, Hackney said, is to maintain accountability, reminding staff, providers and students of their role in sustaining the school’s mission and culture. The provider meetings, for example, gave staff and the partners a chance to compare notes and work together, and ensured that everyone was performing to expectations.

“It was a healthy environment,” Hackney said. “It wasn’t a competitive thing. … It was, ‘How can we cross-collaborate and do better?’ Especially since you’re serving some of the same children.”

Such work needs manpower. Much of the budget requested by the Kenney administration will go to add a “resource manager” in every school, who would handle much of the planning, parent and community outreach, and fundraising.

Principals will need those managers to be on top of their games, Hackney said. “You should be one less thing for me to worry about – not one more,” he said. “I already have too many things to do.”

Kenney administration officials say they’ll pick the initial cohort of community schools soon. They hope to have the first resource managers in place by the summer, networking, fundraising, and lining up partners and supports of all kinds.

And while such managers will give schools a big boost, Hackney said, principals will also quickly find that keeping students moving toward graduation requires more than a few new programs. It requires a schoolwide effort to define and maintain a culture of learning that’s healthy for everyone.

No test can measure for this kind of culture, but “kids can sense when it exists,” Hackney said. “We have to get to a place where we can say, ‘This is how we teach. This is our approach with children.’ And it has to survive administrations.”

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Bill Hangley Jr. is a freelance contributor to the Notebook.