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Hite takes a tour with the teachers’ union

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

by Paul Jablow

The Philadelphia School District will ask for additional concessions from the teachers’ union because "we’re going to ask for concessions from everybody," Superintendent William Hite said Monday. But he spent his morning underscoring his interest in working with the union.

Interviewed before touring Andrew Jackson School in South Philadelphia with American Federation of Teachers national president Randi Weingarten, Hite said bluntly that "if we try to move forward in our current environment, we’ll go broke. You look at the balance sheet, and it doesn’t take long to see it’s gloom and doom. The situation is dire. We have to stabilize it somehow."

In response to questions, Hite said that he did not, however, see the recent report by the Boston Consulting Group as a guide to the District’s future. The report, released in August, proposed closing dozens of schools and taking other steps that assume an ever-increasing proportion of students attending charter schools.

"It provided us with useful information," Hite said. "Other things, in my opinion, were not that useful."

Hite repeated that he plans to release his own plan on Jan. 2 and that he would also "advocate forcefully with Harrisburg and the city and the mayor" for increased resources, although he was not optimistic they would be forthcoming. He also said his style would emphasize "engaging individually with many of the neighborhoods," which he said can be more productive than large meetings where residents "get two minutes at the mike."

Whatever happens moving forward, Hite said, he hoped it would be in cooperation with "my good friends Jerry Jordan and staff." Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, had a testy relationship with the last permanent superintendent, Arlene Ackerman, but both he and Weingarten predicted a changed atmosphere.

The fact that Hite joined the tour of the K-8 school "is a signal about wanting to work together," said Weingarten, who has made a similar tour in each of her four years as union president.

Weingarten said in an interview that the tour was also her own signal about the importance the union places on Philadelphia, which she said she had promised to "adopt" at the union’s national convention this summer.

"Like Chicago, it’s a battle for the heart and soul of public education," she said. On Sept. 18, teachers in Chicago ended a bitter, seven-day strike. Weingarten said that the battle here is with a governor and others “who don’t evidence a commitment to public education and all the children."

Nationally, she described public education as under attack by "powers on high. … They talk about teaching to the test. … They talk about fear and sanctions."

In Philadelphia, she said, “portfolio management,” which is the District’s reform strategy, would “decimate and balkanize the school system.”

"We are working hard with our local office and the community on a plan that will be working for all the children," she said before starting on a classroom tour led by principal Lisa Ciaranca Kaplan. "We have a public school system where we know what works." She was referring to a coalition of groups including the PFT that are devising an alternative plan to portfolio management and massive school closings.

Jordan said that Jackson had been picked by the union as an example of what a school can accomplish when community resources are combined with energetic leadership and programs such as music, art, and all-day pre-kindergarten.

In Robert Malara’s kindergarten class, Weingarten, a former teacher, sat on the floor and engaged students as Kaplan asked them to raise their cupped hands to illustrate the school’s "PAWS" slogan: "Positive Attitude Wins Success."

On a school balcony, members of community mentoring groups worked with 7th graders on a science experiment about water filtration.

"We’re moving, we’re shaking and it’s wonderful," Kaplan said.

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