Eyes on Hite: Community organizers hope to influence superintendent’s reform plan

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

By Bill Hangley, Jr.

With just a few months before Superintendent William Hite issues his recommended reforms for the School District of Philadelphia, a coalition of education and labor advocates is hoping to bring its influence to bear.

The Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools includes the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU), Youth United for Change (YUC), Action United, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and more. The group opposes many aspects of a reform plan produced for the District by the Boston Consulting Group that calls for the closure of over 60 schools and the introduction of a decentralized "portfolio management" model.

PCAPS hopes to present to Hite a detailed, community-supported alternative in time to influence his final recommendations to the School Reform Commission, which he expects to deliver in January.

In September, PCAPS launched its efforts with a daylong conference that drew almost 300 people. The conference’s workshops and panel discussions were designed to educate attendees and gather opinions. The group is now working to get several thousand responses to a community survey about education priorities, and it will host a series of town hall meetings in October.

AFT president Randi Weingarten has praised the effort and met with organizers. Hite has yet to meet with the group, but he said he welcomes PCAPS’ perspective and shares its conviction that every student deserves access to a quality seat.

PCAPS leaders say they have a lot of organizing to do and feedback to gather before they’re prepared to share detailed recommendations with Hite. But broadly speaking, the coalition hopes to shift the conversation away from the question of how to save money and close schools, and toward the question of how to provide every community with high-quality schools. They’re encouraged by the fact that public pressure has already led school officials to back away from some of the more controversial proposals in the Boston Consulting Group’s original reform plan, such as "achievement networks." And they’re hopeful that Hite will prove receptive to grassroots concerns and adjust his recommendations accordingly.

The Notebook asked one of the lead organizers of PCAPS, Andi Perez of YUC, to share her thoughts about where things can go from here. Here are the highlights of our conversation:

Notebook: It sounds like PCAPS organizers are optimistic about the prospect of influencing Hite. Why?

Andi Perez: I think he was hired to be an implementer and not a visionary. And so for him to even come out publicly and say that he’s not for achievement networks, I think he’s diverted a little bit from a pure implementation model. Initially he said that he liked the [Boston Consulting Group] plan, and now he’s kind of diverting from that. I’m hopeful.

Notebook: What can PCAPS offer him?

Perez: Political coverage and support. If he’s going to make some decisions around education reform that are consistent with what the community wants, we can offer him that support. Because there are powers out there that obviously don’t want the type of education reform that we want, that has proven successful. So if he does go out on a limb, we can provide him political support, and community support.

Notebook: Can you help him steer away from potentially counter-productive reform strategies?

Perez: We can certainly protest it! We can build enough political power that he has to listen!

Notebook: Besides Hite, who does PCAPS hope to influence when it comes to reform? The SRC?

Perez: I think we have to change the way the [whole] city thinks about it. What I’m hoping PCAPS does is change the discourse. We have to stay away from the rhetoric of ‘No privatization!’ and ‘No charters!’ and really have honest, clear conversations, and hear people and talk to them.

People throw around these code words: ‘increase high-achieving seats’ and ‘close low-achieving seats’ – who is against that? But can we talk about how we’re creating an apartheid education system that doesn’t work for all kids? I’m not anti-charter – I get tired of getting put in that box – but can we talk about [how] a lot of them aren’t successful?

Notebook: I asked Hite about PCAPS, and he said he agreed with the group’s notion that every child should have access to a quality school. What he didn’t say was that every child should have a quality school right in their neighborhood. So where should the conversation go from here?

Perez: I want people to define ‘a quality school.’ My argument with charters is, we’re not closing unsuccessful charters. If we’re going to close unsuccessful schools, close them across the board.

And the way the conversation could go [from there] is, [how do] we invest in neighborhood schools?

I did a debate in front of a funder and I got so angry – [the funder] said, ‘If you ask a parent if they’d rather send their child to the school across the street that’s failing, or the school across the city that’s succeeding, they’ll say….’ And I said, ‘Well yeah – but did you ask the parent if they’d rather that their neighborhood school was succeeding?’

Notebook: When it comes to possible candidates for closure, we hear about empty seats and SPI – whether a school is at capacity or not, or whether it’s failing academically or not. Do you see a strategic discussion going on about what a given neighborhood needs, in terms of broader economic and community development, and how a given school can be organized to aid that effort?

Perez: Not at all. It’s like, there’s the city and the school district, and never the two shall meet.

Notebook: Is it fair to say that part of PCAPS’ goal is to bridge that gap?

Perez: Or recommend that that happen – absolutely.

Notebook: Do you worry that PCAPS could find itself opposing closures across the board? Could PCAPS potentially support a situation where you say, ‘We support closing a building here, in exchange for improvements in a building there?’

Perez: PCAPS couldn’t determine that itself – not if we’re a bottom-up [effort]. PCAPS itself could not go and negotiate that. But could we facilitate dialogue? Absolutely. I do think we have to push the dialogue beyond, ‘let’s just keep a school open.’

If a school’s being closed for a facilities reason [i.e. too many empty seats], my frustration is that they haven’t even talked about the prospect of mixed-use facilities. We hear schools and kids screaming that they need wraparound services. We can put a health clinic in there, community-based organizations [can] rent space in the school.

If a school’s closing because it’s failing, then it’s a matter of trying to talk the District into investing [in it].

Notebook: Is there a danger of PCAPS being pigeonholed as a defender of the status quo?

Perez: That argument is so old. We [YUC] always get accused of it. This organization has been fighting for education reform for 20-some years. Don’t ever, ever say that this organization has ever protected the status quo.

I think people in this city are scared. I think they’re disgusted. I think they’re pissed. I think people fully realize that the school system is underfunded. I don’t think anybody thinks that closing schools is anything but sad – a daunting blemish for the city. So I don’t think that [because we’re] saying, ‘don’t close schools’ that you can make the argument that we’re protecting the status quo – especially when we’re saying, ‘Don’t close schools – do this.” An alternate, research-proven reform.