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Schools chief unveils plan to 'reset' the Philadelphia District

By Dale Mezzacappa and Benjamin Herold for Notebook and NewsWorks on Jan 6, 2013 09:47 PM
Photo: Harvey Finkle

Saying it’s time to “reset our District,” new Superintendent William Hite this weekend released a reform blueprint based on consolidating scarce resources in the hopes of strengthening Philadelphia’s traditional public schools and staunching the flow of students and dollars to city charters.

“That’s what this work is about: developing better options and better opportunities for parents in District schools,” said Hite. “We can become more competitive as a District.”

With some 60,000 Philadelphia children already enrolled in the city’s publicly funded, independently managed charters, Hite said he believes that sector has reached a “natural saturation point.” But he knows that winning parents back to the beleaguered District won’t be easy.

Hite’s “Action Plan 1.0” highlights the challenges: the new superintendent hopes to “professionalize” teachers while cutting their compensation, improve student outcomes while causing widespread dislocation through massive school closings, and offer better services to families despite facing a $1 billion shortfall.  

Hite said the plan, which he expects will evolve, is aimed primarily at the District’s workforce. But he wants the public to know the priorities that will guide his tenure.

Better academics, more stable finances

The action plan outlines two “anchor goals” -- improving academic outcomes and ensuring the District’s financial viability. From there, the document lists a host of strategies and actions that Hite wants to guide the District’s work. 

The academic side of the plan calls for a renewed focus on everything from early childhood education to turning around low-performing schools. The superintendent said he wants to attract top educators to the city, create opportunities for more professional collaboration in schools, and enhance “teacher voice” in District decision-making.

But Hite also made clear that he will use upcoming labor negotiations with the teachers’ union to seek deep concessions, both in terms of compensation and work rules. That means measuring teacher performance, in part by student outcomes, and a de-emphasis on seniority in governing teacher assignment.

"If you’re a teacher, it’s going to be a tough conversation,” he said.

On the financial side, Hite said he will advocate for more state and local funding, but isn’t counting on it to materialize. Although the plan contains several costly items, he says it is “revenue-neutral” and can be implemented through more efficient use of existing funds instead of new spending. 

“We must live within our financial means,” he stressed.

This year, the District borrowed $300 million to pay its bills. Officials say they face a cumulative deficit of $1 billion by 2017-18 unless harsh austerity measures are taken now.

The release of Hite’s plan comes about four months after he took the helm of Philadelphia’s District. The new superintendent said he spent many of his early days on the job visiting schools and hearing from a cross-section of stakeholders. 

The bottom-line takeaway point from his listening campaign, Hite said, was that parents want “a very good teacher, a safe school, [and] they want their students to be exposed to opportunities.”

Redefining relationship between the District and charters

Since before Hite arrived, Philadelphia’s education leaders have said the city’s focus should be on increasing the supply of “high-performing seats,” regardless of whether they’re in District, charter, or private schools. Arguing over differences in school type, said Mayor Michael Nutter in August, is an “esoteric debate” that holds no relevance for families seeking better, safer educational options.

Critics howled in protest, arguing that such an approach will lead to unchecked charter expansion and the death of neighborhood public schools.

Hite’s December announcement that he wants to close 37 District schools reinforced those fears.

But the superintendent said his motivations have been misinterpreted. 

Hite said the massive downsizing he has proposed will be painful, but argued that it’s necessary so the District can ensure its long-term viability and compete with charters over the long haul.

“If we continue to spend $30 million on empty seats, that’s $30 million that can go to art, music, journalism, programs that are useful to students,” he said. “We have to ensure that all of the remaining seats are effective seats.”

The plan, however, makes no specific mention of expanding access to art, music and extracurricular activities.

Hite also said the District must also do a better job of ensuring quality in the charter schools it authorizes. He said “nothing is off the table” when it comes to holding charters accountable, including changing the management of those that chronically underperform.

Under Hite’s plan, the District intends to “turn around” six more of its own low-performing schools this year; three will be converted to charters, and three will remain under District management. 

In the hopes of luring students and funding back from what Hite said were largely ineffective cyber charters, the District also intends to create its own virtual school option by next fall.

“We think we can do a better job preparing a virtual experience that attaches an adult that can support those students,” he said.

Improving District schools

For those traditional, brick-and-mortar public schools that remain under his direct supervision, Hite’s strategies include creating better metrics to measure the academic progress of students and schools and improving “early warning systems” to catch and help students by sixth grade who are falling off track.

The District will “fully implement the Common Core standards” adopted by Pennsylvania and revise its graduation and promotion policy so that “[s]tudents, families, and District leadership will have a clear, consistent understanding of the expectations for and path to graduation,” according to the plan.

Other goals include improving nutritional options in schools; better meeting the needs of special education students, gifted students and English language learners; and improving the quality of alternative education centers created to recapture dropouts and overage students.

At the District’s entry points, Hite wants to significantly increase access to early childhood education, which he says is affordable through more efficient spending of targeted federal dollars.

In high schools, he wants to strengthen the curriculum so more students take rigorous courses. He hopes to create more partnerships with universities, use technology more effectively, and increase access to “relevant and high-quality” career and technical education. Hite also plans to expand access to Advanced Placement courses and the International Baccalaureate program.

The big-picture goal, said the new superintendent, is to develop students who leave District high schools able to read, write and do math -- and able to think critically, collaborate to solve problems, speak a foreign language, and persevere through adversity.

“These are skills that go beyond just a state assessment, that also build on the type of things that we think are valuable for students to become productive citizens moving forward,” he said.

The role of teachers

All of it, said Hite, is to be done in conjunction with teachers who will receive more support and more respect as professionals.

That means involving teachers in decision-making, as well as professional development that is “based in schools and related to the daily activities of teachers and learners.”

Although such proposals are likely to be well-received by teachers, Hite also made clear that he will seek major changes and concessions from the District’s largest group of employees.

In order to create the “innovative school models” he envisions, Hite will seek the opportunity to shift traditional schedules, redo staffing configurations, and lengthen the school day and year. He also said he wants principals to be able to choose teachers based on factors other than seniority.

And there will almost certainly be a fight this spring over teacher compensation; the District’s five-year financial plan assumes $156 million annually in savings from labor costs, a reduction of 13 percent. Realizing that without cutting teachers’ salaries and benefits would be difficult, if not impossible.

A new way of doing business

For now, the timing of Hite’s proposed actions remains uncertain, and the specific goals against which progress will be measured have yet to be specified.

“District leadership fully understands the importance of … measuring progress and setting targets, and will work hard over the coming weeks and months to ensure we are guided by ambitious, clear goals, with clear deliverables and accountabilities,” reads the plan.

Ultimately, though, Hite said his ambitious blueprint is nothing less than “asking the city to rethink its concept of school and the entire delivery system for education.”

During his time on the job, Hite has shown a knack for winning people over, and he seems to have convinced a weary city to hear him out.

But with school closings, a new round of budget cuts, and labor negotiations all looming, Hite knows maintaining the public goodwill he has so far engendered won’t be easy. 

He also realizes that the reform plans of his predecessors didn’t stop parents from fleeing the District in droves.

In the end, he knows, the public will judge his plan based on how it is executed:

“I would hope that individuals will say, 'Wait, this is different. The District said it was going to do something. It delivered on it.  And now as a result of it, my child is experiencing something that they didn't have a chance to experience before.'"

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Comments (44)

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on January 7, 2013 9:41 am

We should look at this moment in time as an opportunity to rebuild our school district and move into the 21st century in our notions of school governance, leadership, pedagogy and the professionalization of teaching and learning.

I am interested in Dr. Hite's remark as reported above that he wants principals to "choose teachers based on factors other than seniority." We already have a site selection program for choosing teachers which is not seniority based.

The more festering issue in our school district is 'How shall we choose our principals?" Are we going to continue to allow administrators to "put their friends in" or are we going to have an open and inclusive process for choosing our principals which includes teachers, parents, and in high schools, students in the selection process?

What are the rules governing selection of principals? Is it going to be a democratic process or an autocratic process?

Do we want true innovative leaders or just "yes men and women?"

The "quality of leadership" in our schools is one of the most festering issues of urban education today.

How can we "reform" our schools from principal centered organizations to collaborative, school community centered organizations?

No matter how we twist it, effective leadership is the most crucial element of effective schools.

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 7, 2013 3:24 pm

Rich,

You hit the nail on the head! Full site selection already exists. The issue is, why don't more schools have full site selection?

EGS

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on January 7, 2013 4:18 pm

Yes, the essential question of school governance and leadership is and always will be 'Whose School Is it?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 9, 2013 5:56 pm

Anything other than seniority is subjective. As a teacher in the SDP you should not have to be interviewed and show a resume. Things have gotten way out of hand with private sector methods and it's yet another way to diminish the union. If I and another teacher were hired in the same year same week, the one who was hired first has the seniority, it's the only objective way there is.to avoid contention. A combination of traditional and SS was not the worst idea but total SS is a horrendous.idea. Does anyone not realize that principals have agendas, and ask any teacher at random how they feel about pricipals having more power.

Submitted by Katie (not verified) on January 7, 2013 9:00 am

Superintendent Hite will be at Alcorn Elementary TONIGHT, 3200 Dickinson Street. We need folks there to protest school closures ! School # 215.952.6219 for exact time. For more information on events pertaining to school closures and meetings for the community to organize against it, please visit https://www.facebook.com/PhillyCommunitiesUnited

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 7, 2013 7:57 pm

I'm not able to attend this meeting, but I will be attending the one in my neighborhood.
This plan to close 37 schools all at once has a big enough footprint that there is a lot of pushback. Communities are mobilizing. Dr. Hite is asking for concessions from teachers, but the PFT is against the closings. Since the PFT is against the closings, they are on the side of the students and parents. There is strength in numbers. People have to keep fighting.

Submitted by Katie (not verified) on January 7, 2013 8:47 pm

I sure hope you are right. Getting organized and making a forceful impact quickly is going to be key to prevent this plan from rolling forward. They've had 5+ years to get their machinery organized- and we are only now responding... but yes, the work by PCAPS is really fantastic- and there is a lot of motivation to stop this bogus plan to close so many public schools. For the PCAPS response, please read: (http://wearepcaps.files.wordpress.com/2012/12/pcaps-community-education-...)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 7, 2013 11:01 am

What great teachers are going to continue in a largely thankless job for less money?

Submitted by Jack (not verified) on January 7, 2013 11:52 am

Now you know why there will be no teacher layoffs. Many more teachers than you think will be resigning or retiring rather than go through all of this stuff. My money's on the PSD actually hiring more teachers mext year to fill gaps.

Submitted by Helen Gym on January 7, 2013 11:13 am

"Critics howled in protest" over the "death" of neighborhood schools? 

Submitted by Dina (not verified) on January 7, 2013 1:43 pm

All of a sudden everyone is talking about "effective seats." That's the language of the Partnership, bent on creating more and more charters that have outside, extra money. "Seats" aren't effective. Communities, principals, teachers, families, neighborhoods, schools - with sufficient support and resources, and with creative minds working together, these can all be effective. But "seats?" You plunk a child into an "effective seat" and voila, high test scores? Isn't there something wrong with this language about students and education?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 9, 2013 12:42 pm

I cannot express how much I agree with this comment Dina. The verbiage used in these descriptions/transactions is indicative of wanting to hide what is really going on.The Broad school is spitting out these managerial Superintendents one after another with the purpose of transitioning this whole District into charter and private management.I used the word "transitioning" as an example of this verbiage which really means defunding and moving to a privatizing mode.

Communities = don't matter
Teachers= expendable
Unions= "standing the way of our progress" just try and deal with them
Children= shift them around from "empty seats" to "effective seats"
Governor = off the hook because our state is "broke"

This is setup that started YEARS ago and culminated in a comment uttered recently by Mayor Nutter, "we need to blur the lines between public and private."When I went to school here THIS WAS UNTHINKABLE. Our parents understiood that these were lines never to be crossed.

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 7, 2013 3:50 pm

If the charters have reached a natural saturation point, why will there be 3 more Renaissance charters?

If he wants to attract top educators, how can he do this while also cutting salaries and benefits? SDP teachers already make less than teachers in most nearby districts.

Submitted by Philly (not verified) on January 7, 2013 3:55 pm

Under Darden, the Charter Office granted thousands of new seats - including a 1400 student high school to Performing Arts (K-8) school. I'd like to know Hite's rationale for "turning over" 3 more schools. Now, more schools site and wait...

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 7, 2013 4:52 pm

In the current financial situation, there is NO rationale for turning over 3 more schools to charters and having 3 become Promise Academies! They're robbing Peter to pay Paul...they're robbing other schools to pay for the turnarounds.

Submitted by Joe (not verified) on January 7, 2013 6:55 pm

Don't believe anything he says. Keep your eyes on the ball and don't let him play a shell game with you. Hite's goal is to privatize everything he can. He's the proverbial wolf in sheep's clothing. Having said that, be as fair as possible but don't be a patsy.

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 7, 2013 7:17 pm

Joe,

At least Dr. Hite recognizes that the charter schools are at a saturation point. It's fair to close a few schools, but not 37. Pushback from members of the public, students, teachers, principals, and parents will help make the closure plan more sensible.

EGS

Submitted by tom-104 on January 7, 2013 7:29 pm

Where have you heard Dr. Hite "recognizes that the charter schools are at a saturation point."

In his Action Plan it says:
Strategy 3:
G. Become a top-quality charter school authorizer.  Become a top-quality authorizer of high-performing charter schools. Improve the transparency and consistency of our work with the Charter sector in Philadelphia.  Strategically manage charter growth and performance in support of dramatically improving student outcomes, and ensuring the District's financial stability.
The 84 charter schools in operation in Philadelphia enroll approximately 54,000 students.  The proportion of students enrolled at charters has expanded by over 40,000 seats since the 2003-2004 school year. While there are many examples of charters driving transformational change, charter school performance, like that of District schools, is variable.  In 2012, the percentage of charter school students scoring basic or below basic in reading on the PSSA was 44% (excluding the new Renaissance Charter schools).
H. Collaborate with other school operators.  Actively collaborate with all Philadelphia school operators, through the Great Schools Compact and other relevant venues, to provide the best possible experience for Philadelphia families, share successful practice, and benefit from shared operational economies of scale.

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 7, 2013 7:22 pm

He says "natural saturation point" in the third paragraph of this article.

Submitted by Joe (not verified) on January 7, 2013 7:20 pm

Tom 104----Bingo.

Submitted by Joe (not verified) on January 7, 2013 7:13 pm

I'm just saying to keep both eyes open and look at the facts as things progress. By the way, they WILL NOT close 37 schools, more like 22 but don't gloat or worse, give Hite any credibility. 25 schools is a lot more than is necessary.

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 7, 2013 8:12 pm

Joe,

I'm paying very close attention. And I'm very skeptical of the plan and Dr. Hite is kidding himself if he thinks he can close 37 schools. Even 25 is too many. That said, the reality is that when he comes for concessions from teachers later on, the teachers will have a lot of community support because it's the PFT and other unions that are opposing this plan along with the parents and students. None of the school reformers are opposing the plan, unless charter schools are under fire. Also, there is a lot of evidence that school closings don't save much money.

Education Grad Student

Submitted by Joe (not verified) on January 7, 2013 8:57 pm

I know you are paying attention but he wouldn't be here at all if his intentions were to scream at Nutter and especially Corbett for fair funding for the kids. The focus, no matter how "reasonable" his words, is to make money for the puppet masters. Having said that, he does have a bit of Elmer Gantry flair in him.

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 7, 2013 9:04 pm

And this is why Hite is losing credibility with the public. Where are the stories about him going up to Harrisburg and asking for more funding? Why isn't the District suing the state based on inequities in budget cuts? Dr. Hite needs to play hardball in Harrisburg. Get in touch with Jim Roebuck and work on some legislation. I know that it's a Republican dominated legislature, so the legislation may not get anywhere, but Hite needs to at least TRY to bring in more money. Pressure Corbett to deal with pension costs -- I know people don't like to hear about that, but there needs to be some reform. Joe Paterno had a pension worth over $8 million, I think.

The other thing he needs to do is take on City Council and pressure them to pass AVI. At least Tom Knudsen talked about AVI. Dr. Hite isn't even talking about that. What is the city doing to collect all of these unpaid taxes? I know Hite is new to the area, but he has had enough time to be up to snuff on these issues. That's why he gets paid the big bucks!

On a lighter note, the Elmer Gantry reference went over my head...I'm in my 20s. But I'm looking up Elmer Gantry on Google now. You learn something new every day....

EGS

Submitted by Joe (not verified) on January 7, 2013 10:35 pm

Ed Grad.--------------------The city will NEVER go after the slumlords for that enormous amount of money because, for the very most part, they are the slumlords, either they themselves, or their political buddies. You can kiss that money goodbye. I was once in my 20s, I think when Lincoln was President---------I'm so jealous !!
Yes, Hite is new to Philly but he wasn't born 20 minutes ago. He saw The Poverty Cycle in Maryland too but dismissed it there also as not very important. Hard to believe he says those things, especially to an audience mostly comprised of poor folks who know better but he does.

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 8, 2013 12:40 am

Good point Joe. I forgot that a lot of those properties belong to slumlords. Like Traffic Court, there's a lot of hanky panky and mutual back scratching going on with tax collection.

Submitted by Joe (not verified) on January 8, 2013 7:09 am

Ed. Grad---------------------- That money is in the half Billion area which is a nice area. There have always been inequities especially towards the so called margin people and that has always been shameful enough but with the rise of the Tea Party Nuts in 2010, these varmints were elected by US. They didn't just materialize in Gov. Mansions around the country. Hopefully, we shall have learned from our mistakes--------if we make it through this carpet bombing. Oh, any by the way, Obama has also been a huge punk for not fighting louder and more publicly for the masses of people who voted him in. Yes, the right wing extremists are Nazi wannabees but The President acts as though he's just a bystander and not the Leader of the free world. Of course, when he needed our votes again, he said all the rights then.

P.S. America is NOT broke. This is all orchestrated to turn back the clocks to where the masses had no hope, no unions and were beholdin to corporate American for everything. Wall Street is richer than EVER by all accounts even their own.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 7, 2013 4:57 pm

This dude won't even be here still in 2-3 years. LOL!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 7, 2013 6:05 pm

For all of them Great Schools Compact, BCG, Hite, Knudsen...we a just a stepping stone fro them to step on in their career path.

Submitted by Arlene A (not verified) on January 7, 2013 4:49 pm

I hate a better plan!

Submitted by William Hill (not verified) on January 7, 2013 8:45 pm

Joe is name calling. Another fine product of the Philly school system.

Submitted by Jack (not verified) on January 7, 2013 8:27 pm

And what grade do you teach at Hill? And if you are so bitter, do all the other hard working staff a favor and leave now.

Submitted by The Guy (not verified) on January 7, 2013 5:50 pm

All these parents care about is what will inconvenience (sic) them. The only reason they care that their neighborhood school closes is that now they have to get up even earlier to get their kid to school. It is so tough to wake up a little earlier when you have to be back at home by 9 to watch Cheaters on your couch. Make no mistake - these "parents" are predominantly not working and look to schools to help them raise their children.

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 7, 2013 6:25 pm

The Guy,

Yes, some parents care about the inconvenience of taking their child to a school further away. That said, How do you know that most of them don't work? Do you live in Strawberry Mansion? Do you know what TV shows they watch? Otherwise, you appear to be stereotyping them based on where they live and who they are (African American).

EGS

Submitted by William Hill (not verified) on January 7, 2013 8:53 pm

EGS

I think you are the real racist for assuming he was talking about African americans. Lots of people like Cheaters - whites, blacks, latinos, and even asians! Your kind of assuming attitude is unneeded around these parts.

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 7, 2013 8:11 pm

William,

I made a fair inference. I made no racial assumption. The Guy was talking about the parents at L. P. Hill School. Anyone who knows anything about Strawberry Mansion knows that it's a predominately Black neighborhood. The enrollment at L. P. Hill School is 93.9% African American (https://webapps.philasd.org/school_profile/view/4450). The Guy was implying that the parents at this school are lazy--because they don't want to get up earlier and that they come back home to watch TV. Put two and two together. (And I never said anything about Cheaters. I was posing a question about how he could make a specific statement about the TV watching habits of the parents at that school.)

EGS

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 7, 2013 9:34 pm

This whole "convenience" thing really ticks me off. Implying that parents who value convenience somehow don't value education is a pathetic straw man intended to put parents on the defensive. It's a ridiculous metric for judging parents that would never be applied in a suburban district. I don't think it is asking too much of a school district to provide quality schools that children can actually get to without parents impaling themselves on your imaginary standards of parental commitment.

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 7, 2013 6:44 pm

Watching Action News...Dr. Hite said that there is no computerized system for tracking books, computers, and the like. I have seen barcodes on computers, but apparently the system isn't up to date. That is ridiculous!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 9, 2013 12:27 pm

Many of the schools don't even do an inventory anymore, so almost anyone can remove computers and equipment. A HS principal was known to have removed and SOLD shop equipment over the summer rendering the shop inoperable for Fall. The teacher? the kids? she didn't care.

Submitted by Teacher X (not verified) on January 7, 2013 8:53 pm

Cannot wait til their is a good job opening on PA REAP in one of the surrounding districts. This district is a joke and it is the most unrewarding job I have ever had. No hope for these kids with the current climate - both school and home.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 8, 2013 2:38 pm

Amen. I literally can't yell loudly enough to be heard over the non-stop screaming in my classroom. NOOOO self-control, and the teachers are the problem. Kids are truant, and it's the teacher's job to fix it. No homework is completed, and what has the teacher done about it? No consequence is if any effect, and the teacher has no classroom management. But we're going to revolutionize the schools by paying teachers less and praying for SAT scores among students who are 3 years behind level in reading. Hite must walk on water.

Submitted by Luis (not verified) on January 8, 2013 4:25 pm

Non stop screaming in your classroom? You never heard of discipline? Why are you having to yell in the first place? More homework, detention, calls to parents, suspension, and so much more. What is wrong with teachers today.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 9, 2013 12:54 pm

She sounds like an assistant in the classroom not the teacher.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 9, 2013 5:31 pm

Like I said, clueless.

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