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The new face of a district

Superintendent Hite works to rebuild momentum – amid a funding crisis, a cheating scandal, and struggles with Harrisburg.

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

For the School District of Philadelphia, 2012-13 is shaping up as one of its most challenging school years ever.

The School Reform Commission must close dozens of schools, borrow $300 million to stay afloat, and begin a challenging negotiation with the teachers’ union on a new contract. The District will seek big financial concessions from teachers but also changes in seniority practices and how teachers are evaluated and compensated.

Through the Great Schools Compact, the SRC is setting a goal for creating more “high-performing seats” and more choice for parents through “portfolio management” of schools, a strategy that assumes the continued expansion of charters. But its careful planning to manage that expansion without running out of money for District-managed schools is threatened by charter legislation pending in Harrisburg.

The labor talks, the charter growth, the funding crisis, the Harrisburg politics – all are in the lap of a new superintendent hired this summer to take Philadelphia into a new educational era, one that will likely be marked by escalating demands to accomplish more with diminishing resources.

But William Hite is starting off upbeat.

“The challenges in Philadelphia are not atypical to the challenges of many large, urban areas,” he said in July shortly after he agreed to become the new superintendent.

Hite says that his bottom-line tasks are to “operate more efficiently with the resources that are available,” and “make sure all students have quality options available within their communities or their neighborhoods.”

The District faces pressure for higher student achievement as it copes with an ongoing cheating scandal that has undermined confidence in recent gains.

This year was the first in a decade that overall scores on the PSSA went down in Philadelphia; however, proficiency rates are still 25 points higher than they were 10 years ago. The state is blaming the decline on past cheating and stricter testing protocols.

The scandal, which has touched about a fifth of District schools and several charters, is making it harder for education advocates to make a point that they think is obvious – that test score drops reflect a precipitous cut in funding.

Meanwhile, people working in schools are hoping that last year’s disruption – midyear cuts, loss of support personnel – won’t be repeated. But the SRC’s new five-year financial plan calls for balancing the budget by cutting the District’s payroll by 16 percent next year, and continuing reductions for three more years after that.

As principals go about their day-to-day jobs running schools, the system for supervising and supporting them is not fully in place. The central office has been severely cut back and the regions dismantled, but weeks into the school year, the structure was still in flux.

More than 70 schools have been granted new levels of autonomy. The shrunken central office is now expected to function as a hub for support services rather than a command center dictating policy to schools.

Hite hired an outsider, Paul Kihn from the global consultant McKinsey & Co., as his second-in-command. The District is still putting in place a team of assistant superintendents to supervise and evaluate principals, according to spokesperson Fernando Gallard.

All schools have been assigned to new “principal learning teams” to share educational best practices. On hold for right now are plans to organize schools into “achievement networks,” some of which would be run by outside operators.

An alliance that includes the teachers’ union and local organizing groups, called the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, is countering the reliance on privatization of management, budget austerity, and massive school closings by devising a community-based plan for improvement.

As some chafe against the reform direction the SRC has committed to, the city’s education policymakers are fighting in Harrisburg to avert legislation they say could turn their efforts to manage charter expansion into chaos.

Local officials expect that by 2017 charters will educate fully 40 percent of the city’s public school students. But while the growth of charters is seen as a given, District leaders are seeking to control the financial impact by asking charter operators to turn around low-performing District schools rather than open new ones.

But in Harrisburg, Gov. Corbett is backing legislation that would take away the District’s ability to be the sole authorizer of charter schools, invalidate any enrollment caps, and give charters 10-year authorizations.

“This means in essence that once it has obtained a charter, a poorly performing charter school may grow without restraint unless it is so bad that it meets the stringent standards for revocation,” says a memo from the mayor’s education office obtained by the Notebook.

The pending law would make it “difficult, if not impossible, to manage charter school quality and execute on the portfolio management approach we are all supporting,” the memo says.

Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis said in an interview that Harrisburg “would listen to the concerns of the SRC” but must take into account the needs of all schools statewide.

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