This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
As the familiar yellow buses crisscrossed the city in an unmistakable sign that summer is over, Superintendent William Hite continued to sound a theme of optimism and hope Tuesday morning at the ceremonial bell-ringing to open the new school year.
The site he chose for the first-day festivities was Carver High School of Engineering & Science, which accepts students from around the city for a highly selective program focused on preparing them for jobs in a high-tech economy.
This year, the school is adding 7th and 8th grades to better prepare students for the academically rigorous high school.
In addition, with a grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, it is creating a Saturday STEM Scholars program that will recruit students from its North Philadelphia neighborhood near Temple University.
Despite the school’s location, North Philadelphia – one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods with some of its most troubled elementary schools – is not heavily represented in Carver’s student body.
"The Saturday STEM Scholars will help to create a pipeline to students into Carver, students who have not traditionally had access to a magnet program of this caliber," Hite explained.
The school enrolls students from 40 zip codes – a fact that has both positive and negative implications, as magnets drain talent from neighborhood schools, while often not serving their own geographic areas.
Hite has made "equity" his theme for the year, which he defines as "giving students access to great schools close to where they live." Carver, founded in the 1970s as one of the specialized schools meant to promote desegregation, "is just one example" of that, he said.
Hite has said before, and he repeated Tuesday: "The first day of school makes you feel that anything is possible."
In the face of continuing uncertainty, the superintendent has been sticking to optimism, repeating that for the first time since arriving in 2012, he has been able to open schools on time without making cuts.
Outside the school, Mayor Nutter echoed the theme, saying he was heartened to see students walking to Carver past older ones making their way to Temple. The expansion of the school to the lower grades and the Saturday program will instill values and opportunities early that can lead students to college who might not have had the idea before, he said.
Nutter and Hite also noted that the city has provided more than $400 million in recurring funds to the District since the state started making drastic funding cutbacks in 2011.
But both men emphasized the continuing challenges, which include no state budget, a court showdown over the teachers’ contract, political and legal battles over charter school funding and enrollment caps, and schools that lack basic services due to insufficient resources.
With the state locked in a budget stalemate, in part over whether to impose new taxes to increase education spending, Hite said he is making contingency plans. He has written letters to charter schools, which the District must pay every month, to ask them how much cash they have on hand. The District is trying to negotiate lower payments from vendors. And it is considering a increasing a bridge loan that has already required $1 million in borrowing costs.
"All of those things will allow us to go another few weeks," he said. "Without a state budget, we get into a pretty tenuous time."
Schools are already severely pinched. At Carver, for instance, there is no librarian, despite a spacious library, and just one full-time and one part-time counselor for 900 students.
Principal Ted Domers explained that he had to make choices – either the librarian or the conflict-resolution specialist, a 22-year veteran of the school who runs peer mediation programs and generally keeps the peace.
"It’s a trade-off," he said.
Domers has a wish list. Hite asked all principals to prepare both a budget that details how they would spend any additional revenue they get from the state and a budget with zero increase. Domers’ list includes updated Advanced Placement materials. Carver has 15 AP courses, including a new one called the AP seminar, which is interdisciplinary and research-based. The number of Carver students taking end-of-course AP tests has doubled in the last two years.
But in a situation that would never happen in well-funded districts, he lacks the best AP materials.
Still, parents are thrilled to send their children to Carver. Several with new Carver middle schoolers said they had older children who went through the high school.
Elaine Farnum’s son Amral travels from Overbrook; she took him out of a closer charter school, Global Leadership Academy, to send him there.
"My older son graduated from here and went to Temple," she said. "It has a great educational focus and the administration is working well with parents."
Among the other dignitaries at the event were School Reform Commission Chair Marjorie Neff, SRC member Feather Houstoun, City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell and Temple president Neil Theobold.
Hite thanked City Council President Darrell Clarke along with all the others, although Clarke wasn’t there. Clarke has been threatening to withhold $25 million in promised city funds, criticizing Hite’s decision to hire additional administrators instead of putting money directly into schools.