District officials project optimism as new Philly school year begins

Capitalizing on a window of relative prosperity, the School District of Philadelphia hopes to establish momentum during a governance change.

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Quimayah Gibson-McClendon prepares for her first day of kindergarten at William Dick School in North Philadelphia with her great-aunt Elesha Sears (left), and grandmother Tashawn McClendon, (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Quimayah Gibson-McClendon prepares for her first day of kindergarten at William Dick School in North Philadelphia with her great-aunt Elesha Sears (left), and grandmother Tashawn McClendon, (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

As her grand-niece sauntered toward the schoolyard Monday morning, Elesha Sears held her phone steady while trying to hold back tears.

“My princess is leaving the castle,” Sears said, echoing the lament of many adults on the School District of Philadelphia’s first day of classes.

Her princess, Quimayah Gibson-McClendon, didn’t seem fazed.

Sporting a sparkly silver bow Sears had selected, the kindergartner showed off her “Frozen” themed backpack and chattered about what she’d do during her first day at William Dick School in North Philadelphia.

“I write my ABCs,” she exclaimed.

The earlier-than-usual start date, the 90-plus-degree heat — none of it could stifle the giddy first-day vibes in North Philadelphia. The good mood extended to district headquarters on North Broad Street, where officials were painting a sunny picture ahead of the 2018-19 school year.

Their optimism has some merit.

For the third consecutive autumn, the district has no pressing fiscal crisis. For the second consecutive autumn, the district’s teachers have a valid union contract. And, for the first autumn in 17 years, a city school board is overseeing district operations instead of a state-controlled panel.

District leaders also point to a recent uptick in third-grade reading scores on state tests as evidence that their focus on early literacy has paid dividends. Although this year’s scores aren’t official yet, Superintendent William Hite said those numbers will likely tick up again.

“The whole trend is moving forward,” Hite said in an interview before the new school year began. “These are not just blips.”

Progress, though, is relative. Pennsylvania’s largest school district still faces major challenges.

Challenges abound

Despite those recent test score increases, roughly two-thirds of district third-graders don’t yet read on grade level. The fiscal picture looks good through the middle of 2021, but deficits could resurface within three years. And the district will spend the school year removing lead from more than 40 schools — and cordoning off areas it has yet to remediate — in response to reporting from the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News on environmental hazards inside Philly schools.

Even before that reporting, district officials publicized the fact they had billions in deferred maintenance — a byproduct, they said, of underfunding and aging infrastructure.

Fixing these structural problems won’t be easy, and Hite has a warning for those who think the re-establishment of a nine-member local school board will produce miracles.

“I think the challenges the board will face are no different than the challenges the SRC faced, because neither group has taxing authority,” Hite said, referring to the former School Reform Commission.

That means the district will continue to rely on state and city lawmakers for revenue. Hite doesn’t expect significantly more help from the state.

“We’re going to get what we get from the state,” he said.

Hite does, however, think the creation of a nine-member board appointed by the mayor, and approved by City Council, could tighten the relationship between the district and city.

Mayor Jim Kenney proposed a budget this spring that would have raised property taxes and kept Philadelphia’s public school system in the black for at least the next five years. City Council rejected the property tax hike, but OK’d other parts of the proposal.

City Council and the mayor disagree on how much the compromise proposal will generate for district schools — somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 million or $600 million — and how long the district will remain solvent without further action. District officials think they’ll have a small deficit again by the time the 2021-2022 school year rolls around. That means they’re already thinking about how they can attract more dollars.

“We have a two-year period of time where we actually need to work to identify those other resources before we would have to take some drastic action,” Hite said.

“I’m going to continue to make public what we need and when we will need it,” he added.

Taking advantage while it can

While that debate unfolds, the district is capitalizing on this window of relative prosperity to invest in the things it believes will boost graduation rates and test scores.

District officials have redesigned hundreds of elementary school classrooms to better suit them for early literacy instruction. They’ve ensured every K-8 school has an instrumental music program. And they’ve made sure every new district teacher has a mentor, part of a larger effort to boost teacher retention.

The district will also continue to monitor its building stock, phasing out programs that don’t work and structures it considers too expensive to maintain. Though there are no plans for a mass school closure campaign — like the one Hite oversaw in 2013 — Philadelphia can expect continued trimming in a district that now educates 130,000 students, down from over 210,000 in the early 1990s.

“We’ll never get back to the point where we’re making recommendations for 39 [closures] at once,” Hite said. “But we have to make some recommendations based on what these facilities cost to operate, in some cases, and the fact that they’re underutilized in other cases.”

The ultimate arbiter on school closings and every other major policy decision will be the new board of education, which took power on July 1. The board received a warm welcome from residents and politicians, many of whom spent years blasting its predecessor, the School Reform Commission.

Hite, too, sounded optimistic about the district’s latest governing body. He believes a nine-member board will be able to support more robust subcommittees, which will, in turn, provide a forum for policies to be debated and shaped before they reach a final vote.

Right now, he’s spending much of his time briefing and communicating with board members, who are taking on so much new information it’s like “drinking from a fire hose,” Hite said.

The superintendent, now entering his seventh school year as district chief, should have plenty of institutional knowledge to share. It’s been decades since a Philly had superintendent as tenured as Hite. He took over in 2012 as a wave of fiscal crises hit, but he has persevered to see the other side.

“Each year feels better,” he said.

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