January 30 — 2:01 pm, 2012

Pritchett talks superintendent search

pritchettprofile Photo: Harvey Finkle

by Benjamin Herold
for the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks

The School Reform Commission intends to “cast a wide net” in order to snag the right superintendent for Philadelphia.

But in a wide-ranging interview about the search process, commissioner and search committee chairman Wendell Pritchett was clear that he is looking for candidates who will embrace the existing District initiatives – Renaissance Schools, the facilities master plan, and the Great Schools Compact – that have already begun reshaping the way public education happens in the city.

“We have lots of different kinds of schools. That’s the world we live in,” said Pritchett. “And so the next superintendent is going to have to…help us manage, understand, and move forward with a portfolio of schools.”

Listen to Wendell Pritchett discuss the superintendent search on WHYY Radio.

This week, the search committee will kick off the public engagement portion of its effort. At a series of community forums convened by the United Way and facilitated by the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, the committee hopes to get feedback – and names of potential candidates – from parents, students, teachers, business leaders, and others.

“I’m begging [for names],” said Pritchett. “We need to…get a diverse pool so that we can find the best person.”

The first meeting is Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at Mastery-Simon Gratz High. (Full schedule of the forums.)

In advance of the forums, Pritchett sat down with Notebook/Newsworks reporter Benjamin Herold to talk more about the search. The interview occurred January 25 at Rutgers-Camden University, where he is chancellor.

Despite the District’s budget crisis, Pritchett was upbeat that the right candidate will eventually materialize.

“This is an opportunity to have a gigantic impact,” he said. “I’m confident we’re going to find good people because I think they’re going to want that challenge.”

Notebook/Newsworks readers are encouraged to weigh in with their suggestions on possible candidates.

And an edited transcript of the full interview with Pritchett follows.

Herold: So you’ve started the search.

Pritchett: We have.

Herold: Where are you in the process right now?

Pritchett: We’re in the process of drafting a draft job description, understanding that it will change over the process. We have begun the process of soliciting recommendations of candidates, and we’ve begun the process of soliciting ideas for who else we should be talking to to get recommendations for candidates. And most importantly we’ve begun the process of community engagement.

Herold: How do you sell this position?

Pritchett: This is an opportunity to have a gigantic impact…

I’m confident we’re going to find good people because I think they’re going to want that challenge.

Herold: Where are you looking to find candidates?

Pritchett: We’re doing a very robust community engagement process that’s going to invite lots of people from all different walks of life. We’re going to be engaging deeply with the parent community. We’re going to be engaging with student leaders and students in general. We’re going to be engaging with the business community.

Herold: So you’re hoping students and parents will suggest names?

Pritchett: Yes. I’m begging them. We need to cast a wide net and get a diverse pool so that we can find the best person. Everybody that I meet that I talk to about this, I ask who do you think individually would be a good person for the job.

Herold: Are their specific organizations that you or other members of the search committee have already reached out to for recommendations?

Pritchett: Not me personally. I have asked the search committee to do that, but I haven’t gotten a report in the last couple of days about what they’re doing, so I can’t give you an up-to-date list of who we have reached out to.

Herold: What about the Broad Foundation? They’re one of the most prominent and controversial providers of superintendents to urban districts. Is that a resource that you will try to tap?

Pritchett: We’re going to tap every resource we can think of. We’ve been encouraged to do that, and I expect that we will, yes.

Herold: What’s your take on the merits of Broad-trained candidates in other districts?

Pritchett: I don’t have enough knowledge to express an opinion on that. I hope to at some point relatively soon have enough information that I can answer that question, but I don’t yet.

Herold: Given the criteria that the SRC has laid out, there’s been a lot of speculation that you’re going to consider outside of the box candidates, perhaps someone from the private sector who might not have been trained specifically to be a superintendent. Talk to me about the pros and cons of casting the net that wide.

Pritchett: We did agree that we’re going to take a very broad approach to candidates, and we’re looking for nominations from all walks of life. I think that’s a good way to start. I do think that having a deep understanding of the educational mission of public education is crucial to success on this job…

We have not closed the door to any types of candidates.

Herold: Talk to me about how you and your fellow commissioners see that role of public education. Given the flux in the system right now, what does that mean to you?

Pritchett: Public education is crucial to the success of the city. We have a long history in Philadelphia of innovation in public education, meaning schooling that is paid for by tax dollars…I think we are clear that public education, defined as I just did, is crucial. And that the community support for publicly funded education is something that we need the new superintendent to be able to rouse.

Herold: That includes charter schools.

Pritchett: The public pays for them. They’re public schools.

Herold: How do you see that balance between how charters and the District deliver education and education services shifting, and how do you want your new superintendent to address that balance moving forward?

Pritchett: I’m not going to give a full answer because I think the commission and the chair are still working on that question. However, what I will say…is that we acknowledge that we have a portfolio, meaning that we have a lot of different kinds of schools. We have them. The state government and the city government have asked us to manage a portfolio. It exists. Many of our parents desire to have that portfolio, they have sent their kids to those schools. So it is clear that the next superintendent is going to need to be able to organize thoughtfully, get resources, manage, and hold accountable all of those different kinds of schools. That’s the world we live in.

We could have a philosophical conversation about is that where we should be. I find that not really productive, because that’s where we are. And so the next superintendent is going to have to live in that world. We’re going to need someone who can…help us manage, understand and move forward with a portfolio of schools.

Herold: So there’s a series of initiatives currently underway in the District related to that portfolio model. There’s the Renaissance Schools initiative, there’s the facilities master plan, there’s the Great Schools Compact. Is it safe to assume that the search committee and SRC are looking for candidates who are going to embrace those initiatives and look to continue them in some form?

Pritchett: Yes. I gave a lot of long answers, so how about a short one? Yes.

Herold: How is the budget crisis going to impact your search?

Pritchett: I don’t know, is the short answer. I certainly think that candidates who will be looking at the job will be asking lots of questions about it, so that’s one way it will affect us. The reality is that we’re in a dynamic process with regard to the budget, and there are a lot of things that are unresolved. At the same time…It’s not like we’re special. All across the country, school districts are facing the same challenges we have. So yes, it will have an impact. But all of these other places have leaders, and I’m confident we’ll get one, too.

Herold: The SRC has talked about needing to stabilize the District over the next six months. Where are you trying to get the School District in order to attract the type of candidate you want?

Pritchett: I think Commissioners Ramos and Houstoun said it well. We want to have a plan for a sustainable financial model. It doesn’t mean we’re going to have it completely implemented before we have a new superintendent. The reality is that the budget is a dynamic process, and we will be getting to engage with the state government and the city government soon about next year, and we don’t know where that’s going to stand. So the idea that we’re going to have complete clarity is not realistic. But we want to have a process moving towards a sustainable budget model that will create stability for the school district. That’s what we’re trying to do.

Herold: Can you talk a little bit about the decision to shake things up and go with a Chief Recovery Officer during this interim period while the search is going on?

Pritchett: I really think that’s an appropriate question for the chair. But I will say that we believe it’s important to get closer to a plan for fiscal stability so that the next superintendent will be able to be successful in educating children.

Herold: So what Mr. Knudsen is going to be asked to do over the next six months could look very different than what a long-term superintendent is going to be asked to do?

Pritchett: Yes, I think that’s a fair statement.

Herold: At its base, the District is about teaching and learning in the classroom. Where do you want to see the next superintendent take the District on that front?

Pritchett: Well, where we want to see the District go is educational achievement for every child in the School District, no matter where they stand right now and no matter what school that they’re in….

Personally, I think that requires a person who can develop a diverse array of approaches to education, because our children are in different places….

We have budget challenges, we have government affairs challenges, we have management challenges. But if we’re not focused fundamentally on that issue, how do we help all children achieve, we’re not going to make the progress that we need.

We could have a highly functioning and efficient district which produces terrible outcomes for children. I don’t want that. What we want is a district that produces terrific outcomes for children. If that’s happening and there’s a lot of messiness around everything else, at the end I’ll be able to sleep all right with that.

Herold: Can a superintendent who’s not familiar with education have that focus on the classroom?

Pritchett: There are lots of people who are familiar with education who weren’t either teachers or have a Ph.D. in education…We’ve seen success in places for people without those specific requirements.

Now let me say right now that I think that having teaching experience is extremely important and having a Ph.D. in education or a related field would be a useful thing. But I think at this point we should take an open mind as to who the potential candidates are and look at them as individuals, not have boxes to check off.

Herold: Give me an example of what you mean by that.

Pritchett: There are business leaders who have been deeply involved in education through their role as advocates, through their role as administrators. There are government leaders who have been deeply involved in education through their role as legislators and policymakers. There are many ways to approach the question of leadership in public education. And there are many people who have been deeply engaged in that question of what is high quality public education without having specific boxes that they’ve checked off.

Herold: Right now the operating premise is low-performing schools have to earn the right to autonomy. But there’s been a lot of talk of decentralization and increased autonomy for schools. Does this signal a switch?

Pritchett: That’s something that the commissioners along with the senior leaders of the School District have been discussing. I don’t think I have an answer for it…

I personally don’t have an opinion on exactly what decentralization would mean. I think we’re going to need the next superintendent to help us think that through, but we need lots of other people to help us think that through. So again, I welcome people’s thoughts about what exactly that means and how it would work.

Herold: What have you heard from teachers so far?

Pritchett: Personally, not much. I hope and encourage our teachers to engage in the community process.…I’d love to hear more.

Herold: Why were there no educators on the search committee?

Pritchett: There are many educators on the search committee, including myself.

Herold: Philadelphia public school teachers.

Pritchett: The labor-management issues surrounding the search would make that very complicated.

Herold: How important is to have someone who knows Philadelphia and all of its quirks?

Pritchett: I personally think it’s pretty important to have someone who has some knowledge about the city of Philadelphia. Every city is different, and in Philadelphia, we have a lot of idiosyncrasies…Having some understanding of that is I think going to be very important.

Herold: What do you want to let people know about what’s going to happen at the forums?

Pritchett: They will be mostly listening sessions…In general, it will be listening, what does the community, different stakeholders, what do they think we should be looking for in a superintendent, and just as importantly what do they think we should be doing to organize the leadership to produce high quality outcomes for every child. Those two things are related.

We hope that we will have full engagement of the community, because this is very important.

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