District chief to present turnaround plan for schools on Monday

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

Four months after William Hite took the helm of one of the most troubled big-city school districts in the nation, the new Philadelphia superintendent is set to release his blueprint for turning the system around on Monday.

Hite is facing a grim reality. He is already committed to closing 37 schools — nearly one in six — and needs to stave off what will turn into a $1 billion annual shortfall by 2018 if austerity measures aren’t taken now.

Already, many District schools lack amenities that are taken for granted elsewhere, including full-time nurses, librarians, and art and music instruction.

Hite’s plan is likely to call for more efficient spending of the money now available to expand such proven strategies as high-quality early-childhood education, classroom-based teacher professional development, and the recruitment of top talent.

In an interview, Hite said that he agrees that the District needs more funds to help its students compete in the global economy — not to mention with students in surrounding districts that have double the amount to spend per capita.

Hite also said that he wants very much for the District to offer all students a “holistic” education that includes the promotion of good nutrition, availability of social services, and an array of extra-curricular activities beyond sports.

But he said he worked to make his plan “revenue-neutral,” because there is no scenario on the horizon that would lead to a windfall of additional funds. Hite has fully endorsed a five-year financial plan to close the projected gap through severe labor concessions, school closings, and other efficiencies.

“We have to live within our fiscal means,” Hite said.

“We’re utilizing resources in a different way.”

He also has strategies to make the District more accountable for results, more responsive to parents, more able to intervene early when students fall off track, and more willing and able to replicate successful ideas and programs.

“It’s really important for us to do what works and do it well,” Hite said.

He said the accountability extends to both District-run and charter schools.

“We want higher student outcomes for the schools we manage and the charters we authorize,” he said.

Competing plans are out there. One of them, developed by a coalition that includes the teachers’ union and education advocacy groups, primarily calls for Hite and the School Reform Commission to halt school closings and fight harder for more funds.

Hite and the SRC have said that the closings are necessary because millions of dollars are being spent to maintain vacant seats in half-empty buildings. But many critics say that the amount of projected savings — $28 million before transition costs are factored in — does not warrant the upheaval to families and neighborhoods that the massive closings will cause.

“We hope there is recognition [in Hite’s plan] that the District needs more resources in schools,” said Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan.

“We need to do everything we can to make sure all children are successful readers by third grade. When we know that kids are poor attenders and having trouble with numeracy or literacy in 6th grade and on track to drop out, we need to be able to intervene.”

But most important, Jordan said, all schools need the basics, such as a nurse, librarian, art, music, more than one foreign language, and access to extra-curricular activities like school newspapers and drama.

Jordan said that if the PFT contract didn’t require a counselor in every school, he is sure that most of them would have been cut.

“We have become so accustomed to the annual cuts that we’ve got to start looking at what do the children need and what’s fair,” Jordan said.

Hite said that his focus on fiscal sustainability includes advocacy for additional funds. But he is adamant that the District must be “right-sized,” because the money spent on heating and otherwise maintaining mostly vacant buildings can then be “repurposed” for academic programs.

“We have to ensure that all the remaining seats that are available are effective seats that represent what some students may not have access to now, including music, art, language, more science, technology, media specialists, and resources in schools,” he said.

Hite also said he plans to revamp high school courses to get rid of watered-down classes and listen more closely to the needs of teachers.

“It means making sure that teacher voice is a part of how we make decisions, ensuring that teachers have opportunity to learn and grow from each other,” he said.

“The progress we’ve made is because of them and not in spite of them.”