New report lays out what Philadelphians want in next school superintendent

Superintendent William Hite greets students while wearing a face mask

File photo: Philadelphia School District Superintendent William Hite greeted students on their first day of school on Aug. 31, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A new report out Thursday offers insight into what Philadelphians want from the city’s next school superintendent including a leader who values transparency, is committed to equity, and wants to ensure that students, parents, teachers, and district staff all have a voice in the education system.

The School District of Philadelphia’s current superintendent, William Hite, is set to leave in August after a decade-long tenure. The city’s Board of Education is tasked with hiring his replacement, and sought public input to guide the search for the district’s next leader.

Nearly 6,000 Philadelphians participated in dozens of listening sessions this fall — some led by the board, others by community groups —  or shared feedback through a citywide survey. The report summarizes their responses.

It notes that the next superintendent will take the helm at a particularly challenging time. COVID-19 disrupted students’ education, and ongoing complications from the pandemic are hitting vulnerable students especially hard. School teachers and staff are “overwhelmed,” and a surge in gun violence has left students grieving family members and friends, and fearing for their own safety.

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“While the current challenges are great,” the report states, “the next superintendent will have the opportunity to rethink and reimagine how we prepare our children for the future.”

It goes on to lay out several key priorities that emerged from the listening sessions and surveys.

First, participants said they want a superintendent who will invest in the school district’s people and its buildings. That means creating more professional development opportunities for teachers and staff, fixing old buildings, and improving school facilities.

Parents and teachers have raised persistent concerns about unsafe physical conditions in some of the district’s schools, including loose asbestos and mold. Last month, the Philadelphia City Council of Licenses and Inspections committee advanced a bill that would toughen asbestos and mold standards in schools.

“Infrastructure is a leading priority for Philadelphians,” the report reads.

Another main priority is creating an “equitable, non-racist” public education system. One participant called on the next superintendent to visit every school in the district “and ask themselves: ‘What is needed to make this a school that my children can attend?’”

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“The next leader should work to balance the scales – not dolling out resources equally across the District; rather, providing resources at a rate that completely fills the gap so that all students are on the same course and all students are able to achieve,” the report reads.

Participants want an anti-racist superintendent who can develop strategies for engaging non-English speaking families, immigrant communities, people with disabilities and “all others that have been pushed to the margins.” They also want a superintendent who understands how violence and trauma show up in the classroom.

Finally, participants said the next leader should strengthen support systems for everyone involved in schools. That includes mental health support for teachers and staff, professional support for nurses, counselors and paraprofessionals, more services for English language learners, and more efforts to address issues like food insecurity, which “undermine student success.”

According to the report, a quarter of people who shared input with the school board were parents or guardians, 23% were teachers, 18% were district employees, and 11% were students. Community members, members of the business community, and clergy rounded out the list of the participants.

About 41% were white, 39% were African American, 7% were Hispanic/Latinx, 6% were Asian American, Pacific Islander, and 4% were multi-racial.

A leader who ‘enjoys connecting with neighborhood schools’

Philadelphians surveyed were consistent in their desire for a leader who is as comfortable in the boardroom as the playground.

They want to see in their next K-12 chief a courageous, culturally-competent problem solver who is capable of building trust with staff and schools communities, as well as forging partnerships with the business community, according to the report.

The next leader should “enjoy connecting with our neighborhood schools…believe in safe schools for all students…and most of all, believe in the abilities of our children,” the report states.

In terms of experience, participants said they are looking for someone who has already run a major system and has a proven ability to “maintain a strong and effective bench of leadership.”

“The next leader should show their experience in navigating all major district operations…[and] in managing predictable and unpredictable events including staffing shortages, transportation issues, and charter/district relationships,” the report reads.

The ideal candidate will also have experience building a collaborative culture, bringing diverse stakeholders to the table, and “navigating heavy political landscapes.”

Many participants hope the next superintendent will have direct classroom experience, along with a track record of raising student performance in neighborhood schools and “experience working within a diverse school district that is experiencing comparable systematic challenges.”

They would like someone with a history of implementing equitable practices, instituting anti-racist and anti-ableist policies, and taking action to prevent bullying.

The report notes that Philly is home to growing Asian American, Pacific Islander and Hispanic communities, and that many participants said it’s “imperative” that the next superintendent has experience listening to, learning from, and partnering with “diverse and multicultural communities.”

Finally, the next leader should know or be open to learning “how Philadelphia’s wheels turn” and be able to adopt best educational practices from across the world.

The official search for a new superintendent starts tomorrow. Isaacson, Miller — a recruiting firm hired by the Board of Education  — will release the job profile. The board expects to conduct interviews this winter, and announce finalists in January or February.

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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