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A shake-up at 440

Hite reshuffles his administration and moves ahead with his vision.

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

After three years of an administration defined by austerity, personnel cuts and school closings, Superintendent William Hite is ready to move forward with his vision of improving education in the District.

Hite is moving ahead even though he doesn’t know yet whether he will get the financial support from the city and state that he needs to make it happen. He said his main goals will be stability, equity, and opportunity for all students, outcomes he hopes to achieve by making schools — not the central office — "the primary unit of change."

Now, the District administration "is essentially a command and control center," he said. "But schools educate children with different needs and different abilities. And they need very different things."

This week, Hite announced a significant administrative reorganization and the personnel he has chosen to lead the effort.

He is expanding the number of "learning networks" into which schools are organized from eight to 13. Nine will be geographically based, with schools in the same K-12 feeder patterns. The four others will be based on the particular needs of schools: a network to explore and expand innovation, one dedicated to schools that need turnaround, another made up of alternative schools for students seeking to re-engage, and an autonomy network to give more freedom to schools already doing well.

In Hite’s vision are echoes of past school administrations’ efforts: David Hornbeck’s school clusters in the 1990s and Arlene Ackerman’s plans more recently to give "autonomy" and extra help to successful schools. (It was Ackerman who created the Promise Academies, schools that were given extra resources for internal turnaround.) Past superintendents have also talked about transforming the central administration into a service center.

All those efforts had something to offer. But they all ultimately fell victim to internal squabbling, funding woes, lack of support or outright cynicism among the ranks, resistance to change, or some combination of all the things that plague bureaucracies in general and large urban school districts in particular.

Hite said he is well aware of that history. But he said his intent is to move beyond simple reorganization to something deeper.

"We have to organize ourselves at 440 [District headquarters] to be responsive to schools, which is a different orientation than we have now," Hite said. "Often, what happens is the person in central office will say to schools, ‘This is the work I do, this is the date I plan to do it at your school. Get the staff ready to receive the work.’"

What he wants now, he said, is the approach of central administrators asking schools, What do you want to accomplish and how can I be helpful?

"It’s a huge change in the management process that we will be working through as a district," he said. "We can’t snap our fingers and change overnight. It will change gradually as individuals experience a new way of doing business. We will give people the space and time to do that."

He hopes that the administrative shake-up will enable the District to reach his main goal: more equity and opportunity for all students in the system.

"For too many children, zip code defines destiny for what’s available," he said.

Even as he creates the four new networks organized around school type, he said the main focus will be on neighborhood schools, which the vast majority of District students attend. These schools often have the most problems and the least resources. With so many students choosing to attend selective admission schools or charters, neighborhood schools often become schools of last resort.

Many lack options like Advanced Placement courses and career and technical education, Hite said. He wants that to change.

To lead the networks, he is naming educators who specialize in different types of schools, who understand the need to reorient "to a different way of doing the work," he said.

Some of them he has recruited from outside the District. For instance, Eric Becoats, a former superintendent of the Durham, N.C., schools who also led a charter management organization, will be in charge of the turnaround network.

Others have built a national reputation while working locally, most notably Chris Lehmann, the founding principal of Science Leadership Academy, which has been recognized for its inquiry- and project-based learning model. Lehmann will lead the innovation network.

Lehmann said that he is optimistic and excited, despite the District’s continuing budget uncertainty and the inevitable pull of the status quo.

"Ten years ago, they said SLA would be a fad, some initiative that would never succeed," he said. Now, there is a a second school, SLA-Beeber, and a middle school using SLA’s approach will open in 2016.

"You have to believe that when the opportunity to do great work exists, that it is worth doing," Lehmann said. "And you have to believe that when good people of honest intent come together to do powerful work, you can make a difference. Otherwise, why would any of us be doing the work in education at all?"

He thinks that many people now in the central office want to reorient how they do business. "The sad perception is that 440 is a faceless bureaucracy, but within that are incredible people who work in service of schools every day," he said.

In addition to leading the innovation network, Lehmann will remain at SLA as co-principal with Aaron Gerwer, who this past year was a "principal fellow" at the school.

In addition to making new appointments to lead the learning networks, Hite has also reshuffled some of his top cabinet and staff.

The District has provided a list of schools’ “learning network” assignments, plus a summary of all the changes in the District. Following are the names and titles of new network leaders and executives.

Title Name Previous Title
Assistant superintendent, Neighborhood Network 5 Racquel Jones Executive director of principal support and accountability, Baltimore City Public Schools
Assistant superintendent, Neighborhood Network 7 Randi Klein-Davila Principal, Hackett Elementary School
Assistant superintendent, Neighborhood Network 9 Jeff Rhodes Director of school quality, National Heritage Academies
Assistant superintendent, Turnaround Network Eric Becoats Interim executive director, Distinctive Schools
Assistant superintendent, Innovation Network Chris Lehmann Principal, Science Leadership Academy (staying on as co-principal)
Assistant superintendent, Opportunity Network Christina Grant Superintendent, Great Oaks Foundation
Deputy chief academic supports officer Frederick McDowell  
Deputy chief of specialized services Natasha Smith  
Deputy chief of academic enrichment Jack Perry  
Executive director of operations James Harris