School year opens with optimism and one big cloud
Schools opened Wednesday on a crystal-clear day in Philadelphia, with Superintendent William Hite, Mayor Kenney and other officials proclaiming their hope that it will be a year marked by achievement, expanded opportunities, restored programs – and a long-overdue contract settlement between the District and its teachers.
Kenney and Hite started the day at Hill-Freedman World Academy in East Mount Airy for the traditional "bell-ringing" ceremony, launching the school year for the 130,000-plus students in District schools. Hite, Kenney, and their entourages made a whirlwind tour to highlight the important initiatives by the city and District for this year. They visited Dobbins CTE Academy, one of the District’s new community schools, and Munoz-Marin, a new member of the "turnaround" network slated for new programs and intensive attention.
"Nothing excites me more than the first day of school," said an exuberant Hite.
He said this year was especially hopeful because "for the first time since I became superintendent in 2012, after years of tough choices, we are making $440 million in investments."
These investments, over five years, will pay for the restoration of a full-time nurse and counselor to every school, the purchase of new books for classrooms and laptops for teachers, and expanded Advanced Placement offerings, as well as SAT prep courses.
Kenney was also excited.
"This is shaping up to be one of the best school years yet," he said. Speaking of providing education, he said, "This is the most important thing we do. … Don’t tell me this beautiful group of young people can’t achieve."
The District is basking in a moment when its books are balanced, after years of financial uncertainty, revenue shortfalls, and severe cutbacks. Those years have also seen a protracted stalemate between the District and its teachers’ union.
In his remarks, Kenney immediately thanked teachers for continuing their commitment to students despite having no contract settlement – and no raises – since 2013. He said he was confident there would be a breakthrough soon.
"We’re working on it," he said.
Later, in an interview, he said that his deputy mayor for labor relations, Richard Lazer, has been meeting with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and with District officials over the summer in an effort to speed up a settlement.
"We are in discussions," he said. "We’re doing our best. We want a fair contract for both the taxpayers and the workers, and we want to play a productive role."
He mentioned District Council 33, the city’s blue-collar workers’ union, which ratified a contract earlier this month that offered raises around 3 percent – 2.5 percent in 2018 – each year of its four-year term, starting now.
But the teachers work for the District, not the city, and the School Reform Commission cannot raise taxes to pay for any settlement. The SRC has been reluctant to offer raises that it is not sure it will be able to pay for down the road. Its long-term funding picture is still precarious, even with a new state school funding formula.
And, in fact, the District was able to balance its books this year partly because of its depressed personnel costs, caused by flat teacher salaries and an inability to fill all its vacancies – likely one consequence of the labor uncertainty.
But on Wednesday, officials and educators highlighted "hopes and dreams" for the future, and students were upbeat.
Hill-Freedman was chosen for the opening ceremony because it is both a magnet school with a rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum for grades 6-12 and a school where 30 percent of the students are in special education.
Hill-Freedman moved this year to the former Leeds Middle School, which underwent a $7.5 million renovation to accommodate the program. The upgrade, which included new science labs, was accomplished with both public and private money; contributors included the Philadelphia School Partnership and the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia.
Historically, Hill-Freedman has also housed a special education program for students with "complex support needs" and has been known for its efforts to integrate these students into the larger program when possible.
And this year it absorbed 140 Leeds 7th and 8th graders from the neighborhood who did not apply or test into the program. According to principal Anthony Majewski, these students "will be offered the same curriculum. We will differentiate where we have to differentiate." Leeds as a neighborhood middle school was officially closed by the School Reform Commission, although Majewski said that he is looking into an admissions lottery for neighborhood students for the future to maintain a local preference.
City Councilman Derek Green’s son started Hill-Freedman on Wednesday as a 9th grader in an autistic support class. Green, who attended the opening, was enthusiastic.
"It is heartwarming to see him start high school in this positive environment for my son," he said. "This is great for me as a parent, for the School District, and for the city as a whole."
Later in the morning, Hite visited Muñoz-Marin Elementary School in Fairhill. The school is one of four added this year to the District’s revamped turnaround network, and it will receive intense intervention and extra resources in an effort to improve performance.
Assistant Superintendent Eric Becoats and new principal Ariel Lajara led Hite, SRC chair Marjorie Neff, and State Rep. Angel Cruz on a tour, which included the new state-of-the-art library.
“Even though we’re a couple of hours into the school day,” said Hite, “you can already sense a very different environment and atmosphere here.”
The 16 turnaround schools will have reduced class size (a 20-1 student-teacher ratio) for kindergarten through 2nd grade, an assistant principal, and additional professional development opportunities for teachers. Under the District’s model, half the faculty and staff will be new.
“I feel beyond amazing, because I am in a situation where we can really make a positive growth,” said Lajara. “Our teachers have adopted a positive-growth mindset. And slowly but surely, this is day one and I can see my students adopting that positive-growth mindset, where they want to belong in this social norm of positivity.”
Hite and Kenney also visited Dobbins at 22nd Street and Lehigh Avenue, which is one of nine "community schools." This model is a major educational initiative for Kenney this year, along with expanded preschool. The city has invested in school-based coordinators and other personnel to transform these schools into community hubs that can revitalize struggling neighborhoods.
Charles Reyes, a 1993 Dobbins graduate, is returning to his alma mater to help make this happen.
"I grew up at 30th and Lehigh," said Reyes, who left the behavioral health field to do this work. He has been reaching out to potential partners and assessing needs in the school. Dobbins, a majestic eight-story building, is down to 635 students – Reyes’ graduating class 23 years ago had 280 students, he said. Reyes hopes to fill the building with resources and activities for students and the neighborhood. He is focusing on what he is calling the three Rs – reviving the community, reestablishing relationships, and renewing hope.
"We’re building a bridge between the school and the community," he said.
Dobbins underwent a nearly $50 million renovation that included new windows and retrofitted classrooms as it adds new career and technical education programs – digital communication, networking technology, and biotechnology.
"I’m excited that the school is giving us a change," said 11th grader Abria Goldsmith, who came to Dobbins for its culinary arts program.
Senior Linda Nguyen was also upbeat about all the changes.
"It’s been a long time since the School District had the money to [invest in students]," she said.