This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Notebook contributing editor Dale Mezzacappa interviewed Superintendent William Hite for an article in our Fall Guide the week before school opened. Here are additional excerpts from the interview, which occurred before the problems with outsourcing substitute services became evident. The interview was edited for length.
Notebook: What do you hope will be different this year and what are you most excited about?
Hite: So, I’m excited about a couple of things. Number one, I’m excited that we’re talking about opening schools without having to reduce something or eliminate something, cut something, close something. I’m also very excited about the fact that with all of the principals that we hired over the last several years, that now there’s over 90 percent retention rate of those individuals who have taken on the leadership roles of their schools.
The work this year that is most exciting to me [is] ensuring equity. As I talk about equity, I’m thinking about defining equity as great schools close to where children live. We have some children now who may have aptitudes for the arts or may have AP potential, who don’t have access to those opportunities simply because of where they live. We’re working so that zip code no longer defines destiny for our children.
Can you be a little more specific? If you’re the typical kid who lives in North Philly and you’re interested in the arts or AP classes, what are you going to see now that you didn’t see last year?
Every principal also did a budget based on the investments, should we get any additional money from Harrisburg. Many of those investments are things like the things you just described. They are expanding the arts, expanding counseling, expanding library services, expanding [the number of] individuals that can work with children who need more attention with helping them to learn to read, it’s all of these things. It’s more AP classes, it’s more art and music classes.
There’s a couple of things that all children in all schools will experience around this whole point of equity. At the next SRC meeting, we’re going to have a resolution on a partnership with Junior Achievement. The partnership will provide the District with the opportunity to ensure that all 3rd graders visit a college campus. So that’s one example. It’s not going to be based on where children live. We want all 3rd graders to have that opportunity, to get them onto a college campus so they can see themselves there and they can see it’s something they can do.
Another example is that we have seen for the past several years, because we no longer provided the PSAT to all students, that we’ve seen a decline by 50 percent of the students who have taken the PSAT. The declines are even more significant among African American children and Latino children. This year, through a partnership with College Board, we’re going to be offering the PSAT for every 9th, 10th, and 11th grader. That’s going to be during the school day at no cost to the student.
Why did you reshuffle the top administration? How will that impact schools and did it result in a net cost to the District?
If people read the action plan, the reshuffling of the District, all of that was in the action plan – that we wanted to become deeply expert in the types of children that we were serving. If in fact we have a set of schools serving children who need something very different, we wanted a level of expertise there that could work with that group of schools.
Why is that important? That’s important because our school leaders are the most important people in our District. That’s why we wanted to, number one, lower the span of control in terms of how many individual people that are working for us, and, number two, to ensure that if you’re working with a certain category of school that you’re an expert in what that category of school is reporting. That’s why individuals, like Chris Lehmann, is leading our innovation work.
Now there are fewer neighborhood schools in each network so that the assistant superintendent can provide direct and continuous support to those principals. Our most important work is making sure that we improve our neighborhood schools, because the vast majority of our children are still in neighborhood schools. We do that by developing and supporting the principals.
[As for cost], our administration still represents 3 percent of our budget, which is, if not the lowest, one of the lowest in the country. I can also add that between grants and the operating budget, it wasn’t [the reported] $1.2 million, that I do know.
Here’s the last thing I wanted to say on that. For three years, we have been running a bureaucracy that was departmentally facing. In other words, it meant that I had HR at the table, I had IT at the table, I had Academics at the table. And now what I want is to have schools at the table because our work is really designed in response to what schools need.
There’s a new governor and soon will be a new mayor and Council members. What has been the impact, and what are your expectations for this changed political landscape?
[Because of Gov. Wolf], now there is real talk of providing school districts across the commonwealth with the resources that they need and restoring some of the drastic cuts that have happened over the past several years. I will say that with the new governor, I’m very thankful that he’s holding firm on getting us additional revenue for educating the children here in Philadelphia and across the commonwealth. I just hope that there is quick resolution to this budget impasse. While we’re starting schools on time, we will quickly run out of cash if in fact this problem is not resolved.
We think that right now, we’re good through mid-October. I will worry, if in fact nothing is done by the end of September, about how long the cash will last.
And the impact of a new mayor?
Both candidates are talking about education, and I think that is very important. I’ve had the opportunity to talk with both individuals and both are very aware of the challenges and what we’re trying to accomplish here. I think it’s important to continue to talk about things like pre-K and expansion of pre-K and how we brand neighborhoods. Those things are extremely important.
What do you mean, brand neighborhoods?
We brand neighborhoods and schools so that we have schools that are responsive to the needs of children in those neighborhoods. I’m looking forward to working with the new mayor.
And we will continue to work with City Council on these very important matters. I think at least one candidate is very well-versed on education and matters associated with education. I think that’s a good thing. The more we have individuals who are concerned about education and the quality of education for all students, the better the chances are that we will have the ability to provide sufficient resources.
Since you came, there was one extension of the PFT contract, but there seems to be this toxic relationship. I guess it’s not a legal or official impasse but it sure seems like one. The principals have been filing grievances. What do you think is going to happen in that regard? Because what happens is, teachers don’t trust you. You heard the other night, the SRC meeting got a little rough.
I heard from retired people at the last meeting, let’s be clear. I meet with teachers and I hear from teachers.
You’re saying that you still have good relationships with individual teachers? You don’t feel like they’re against you?
No. Look. I want to give teachers something as much as teachers want to get something. That point is clear. As a matter of fact, I’ve said now, even in a couple of places this week to new teachers, to existing teachers, my goal this year is to get them something. Period. That’s what I’m trying to do. We’re all after the same thing. I’ve always admitted that we don’t pay our teachers nearly enough. Given the economic environment that we’re in, we have to all make some sacrifices in order to continue to educate our children. I will also be the first one to say they have gone long enough in this kind of situation, and we have to do something.
Now, no one feels good about the fact that we haven’t been able to resolve a contract, but I want to separate my respect for teachers and all of the work and the appreciation that goes into everything that they do every day — I want to distinguish that from our negotiations. They are two different things. I meet with teachers, we have listening sessions with teachers. The whole purpose of doing that was to hear from teachers themselves what they need and what their frustrations are and what we could do better. I’m not suggesting that relationship can’t be improved. What I said is everyone is frustrated with the fact that we don’t have a contract. Me included.
Why is that?
It’s negotiations. There are things that we feel are very important and there are things that the other side feels are very important. That’s been the process that we have been working through. I think that is a part of negotiations. I’m committed to getting teachers something. I have to figure out a way to do that. We cannot go on in perpetuity with this current state, because that doesn’t indicate an appreciation for what teachers are doing in classes. I want to make clear, though, those individuals who were speaking at the [SRC] meeting, most of those individuals were retirees and I don’t feel like that’s a fair representation of all teachers.
Some people seem convinced that you are here to privatize and that has been your task.
That’s kind of silly, actually. If my goal was to privatize we would be privatizing a lot more than what has been privatized here. A lot of what has been privatized was done long before I got here.
But in terms of specifics regarding charters, are you expecting more charters to close – or expansion?
I am looking for an honest conversation about what is high quality. How do we know? What do we know? What do we use to measure that? What do we do about it when schools are not?
I would much rather talk less about what sector it is, which is really an old, stale argument and really start talking about What is quality? What is high quality? And how do we get the SPR [the District’s school rating system] to give us information about all schools and whether or not they are sufficient quality to make sure that we have great schools close to where children live?
The reason we did the [contracting out of substitute teachers] was because four out of every 10 classes [that had a teacher absent that day] didn’t have an adult during the school year. We’re trying to solve a problem. That’s not the intent to privatize.
We’re trying to solve a problem. No one would admit that is acceptable. So why all of the sudden are people going, “Wait a second. Why are you trying to privatize?” Where were you when we were trying to solve this problem?
You finally have a head of the charter office. How would you best characterize your position and expectations for the coming year regarding charters? Do you still stand by your statement a few years ago that charters have reached a saturation point?
First and foremost, the charter office is under the SRC now, but it’s part of what we’re trying to do to have a great school close to where children live.
I stand by my point of reaching a saturation point. I think we have enough in that sector. Now we have to talk about how do we improve the quality of the seats available in that sector. I am very concerned about having to accept new applications and then being bogged down with all that is associated with considering all of those new applications and then the appeals.
Regardless of whatever we come up with to address this issue, this issue is not going to be addressed until we address this funding associated with charters versus District across Pennsylvania. That is the problem. If all things are equal, we’re looking for quality schools. The problem is things are not equal given the current funding structure. That’s what we have to address.
I’ll add that I’m very excited about DawnLynne Kacer in the charter office. She’s done this work in bigger places and larger places. She understands quality authorization. I think she’s going to be a gigantic help at the School District around the quality authorization of charters.