Philadelphia schools chief unveils plan to ‘reset’ the district

Saying it’s time to “reset our district,” new Philadelphia School Superintendent William Hite this weekend released a reform blueprint.  It is based on consolidating scarce resources in the hopes of strengthening Philadelphia’s traditional public schools and reducing the flow of students and dollars to city charters.

“That’s what this work is about: developing better options and better opportunities for parents in District schools,” said Hite. “We can become more competitive as a District.”

With more than 50,000 Philadelphia children already enrolled in the city’s publicly funded, independently managed charters, Hite said he believes that sector has reached a “natural saturation point.” But he knows that winning parents back to the beleaguered district won’t be easy.

Hite’s “Action Plan 1.0” highlights the challenges. The new superintendent:

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Hopes to “professionalize” teachers while cutting their compensation.
Improve student outcomes while managing massive school closings.
 Offer better services to families despite facing a $1 billion shortfall.

Hite said the plan, which he expects to evolve, is aimed primarily at the district’s workforce. But he wants the public to know the priorities that will guide his tenure.

Scholars and dollars

The “action plan” outlines two “anchor goals” – improving academic outcomes and ensuring the district’s financial viability. From there, the document lists a host of strategies and actions that Hite wants to guide the district’s work.

The academic side of the plan calls for a renewed focus on everything from early childhood education to turning around low-performing schools. Hite said he wants to attract top educators to the city, create opportunities for more professional collaboration in schools, and enhance “teacher voice” in district decision-making.

But Hite also made clear that he will use upcoming labor negotiations with the teachers’ union to seek deep concessions, both in terms of compensation and work rules. That means measuring teacher performance, in part by student outcomes, and reducing the role seniority plays in determining teacher assignments.

“If you’re a teacher, it’s going to be a tough conversation,” he said.

On the financial side, Hite said he will advocate for more state and local funding, but isn’t counting on it to materialize. He claims the plan is “revenue-neutral,” reliant on more efficient use of existing funds instead of new spending.

“We must live within our financial means,” he stressed.

This year, the district borrowed $300 million to pay its bills. Officials say they face a cumulative deficit of $1 billion by 2017-18 unless harsh austerity measures are taken now.

The release of Hite’s plan comes four months after he took the helm of Philadelphia’s District. The new superintendent said he spent many of his early days on the job visiting schools and hearing from a cross-section of stakeholders.

His takeaway of his listening campaign, said Hite, was that parents want “a very good teacher, a safe school, [and] they want their students to be exposed to opportunities,”

A revised take on charters

Since before Hite arrived, Philadelphia’s education leaders have said the city’s focus should be on increasing the supply of “high-performing seats,” regardless of whether they’re in district, charter, or private schools. Arguing over differences in school type, said Mayor Michael Nutter in August, is an “esoteric debate” that holds no relevance for families seeking better, safer educational options.

Critics howled in protest, arguing that such an approach will lead to unchecked charter expansion and the death of neighborhood public schools.

Hite’s December announcement that he wants to close 37 district schools reinforced those fears.

But the superintendent said his motivations have been misinterpreted.

Hite said the massive downsizing he has proposed will be painful, but argued that it’s necessary so the district can ensure the long-term viability of its traditional schools.

“If we continue to spend $30 million on empty seats, that’s $30 million that can go to art, music, journalism, programs that are useful to students,” he said. “We have to ensure that all of the remaining seats are effective seats.”

The plan, however, makes no specific mention of expanding access to art, music and extracurricular activities.

Hite also said the district must also do a better job of ensuring quality in the charter schools it authorizes. He said “nothing is off the table” when it comes to holding charters accountable, including changing the management of those that chronically underperform.

Under Hite’s plan, the district intends to “turn around” six more of its own low-performing schools this year; three will be converted to charters, while three will remain under District management.

In the hopes of luring students and funding back from what Hite said were largely ineffective cyber charters, the district also intends to create its own version of those online education offerings next fall.

“We think we can do a better job preparing a virtual experience that attaches an adult that can support those students,” he said.

Improving district schools

For those traditional, brick-and-mortar public schools that remain under his direct supervision, Hite’s strategies include creating better metrics to measure the academic progress of students and schools and improving “early warning systems” to catch and help students by sixth grade who are falling off track.

The district will “fully implement the Common Core standards” adopted by Pennsylvania and revise its graduation and promotion policy so that “[s]tudents, families, and District leadership will have a clear, consistent understanding of the expectations for and path to graduation,” according to the plan.

Other goals include improving nutritional options in schools; better meeting the needs of special education students, gifted students and English language learners; and improving the quality of alternative education centers created to recapture dropouts and overage students.

At the district’s entry points, Hite wants to significantly increase access to early childhood education, which he says could be achieved through more efficient spending of targeted federal dollars.

In high schools, he wants to strengthen the curriculum so more students take rigorous courses. He hopes to create more partnerships with universities, use technology more effectively, and increase access to “relevant and high-quality” career and technical education. Hite also plans to expand access to Advanced Placement courses and the International Baccalaureate program.

The big-picture goal, said the new superintendent, is to develop students who leave District high schools able to read, write and do math – and able to think critically, collaborate to solve problems, speak a foreign language, and persevere through adversity.

“These are skills that go beyond just a state assessment, that also build on the type of things that we think are valuable for students to become productive citizens moving forward,” he said.

The role of teachers

All of this, said Hite, is to be done in conjunction with teachers who will receive more support and more respect as professionals.

That means involving teachers in decision-making, as well as professional development that is “based in schools and related to the daily activities of teachers and learners.”

While such proposals are likely to be well-received by teachers, Hite also made clear that he will seek major concessions from the District’s largest group of employees.

To create the “innovative school models” he envisions, Hite will seek the opportunity to shift traditional schedules, redo staffing configurations, and lengthen the school day and year. He also said he wants principals to be able to choose teachers based on factors other than seniority.And there will almost certainly be a fight this spring over teacher compensation; the District’s five-year financial plan assumes $156 million annually in savings from labor costs, a reduction of 13 percent.

A new way of doing business

For now, the timing of how Hite’s priorities and proposed actions will be rolled out remains uncertain, and the specific goals against which progress will be measured have yet to be specified.

“District leadership fully understands the importance of…measuring progress and setting targets, and will work hard over the coming weeks and months to ensure we are guided by ambitious, clear goals, with clear deliverables and accountabilities,” reads the plan.

Ultimately, though, Hite said his ambitious blueprint is nothing less than “asking the city to rethink its concept of school and the entire delivery system for education.”

“I would hope that individuals will say, “Wait, this is different. The district said it was going to do something. It delivered on it. And now as a result of it my child is experiencing something that they didn’t have a chance to experience before.”

This article was part of a partnership in covering the Philadelphia schools between WHYY/NewsWorks and the Public School Notebook.

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