This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
As he enters his seventh school year as head of Philadelphia’s schools, William Hite thinks he can finally concentrate on adding things rather than subtracting them.
The District has a brief window of fiscal stability, and for the first time in his tenure, it is governed by a local Board of Education rather than a state-imposed body.
Test scores are moving in a positive direction, and all schools this year will have access to an instrumental music teacher, a big reversal after arts programs were decimated during the District’s funding crisis early in his tenure.
Restoring arts programs is a big deal for the District. At the end of the annual induction week for new teachers, the newly hired music teachers rocked it out for their colleagues.
“Each year feels better,” said Hite, who took over leadership of the District in June 2012 and has extended his contract through 2022.
Although he concedes that the District has a long way to go to fulfill its mission of adequately educating all students, “the thing that’s important is being able to maintain a focus on the things we’ve started that we think are creating outcomes,” he said.
Most children in District schools still don’t read or do math on grade level, but there has been uptick in test scores, especially in 3rd-grade reading. Early literacy has been a priority of Hite’s administration.
“What we’ve seen with respect to assessments, we’ve moved thousands of children off the lowest tier,” he said, meaning from below basic to at least the basic level, according to state tests. “At the same time, we have more children at proficient and advanced. The whole trend is moving forward. It’s not just blips.”
The District is welcoming 550 new teachers – a much smaller cohort than in recent years, indicating that there is less turnover.
“That is a 60 percent reduction in what we had to hire the first couple of years,” he said. “One year, it was almost 1,400, the next year, 1,200. Actually, now we are focusing on retention vs. recruitment.”
Teacher induction has been “revamped … to be responsive to what new teachers are asking for.” All teachers new to the District will receive a mentor this year, not just those new to teaching.
Hite also said that working with the nine-member Board of Education will be different for him than working with the five-member School Reform Commission.
The new board members – his new bosses – comprise “a smart, passionate, committed group of public servants who have a hard task in front of them.” They have a steep learning curve, he said, “navigating all the individual decisions they need to make, understanding that with each decision there could be trade-offs.”
He said dealing with nine bosses instead of five has changed his daily workflow, and he is happy about the board’s decisions to activate committees to deal with specific areas, such as facilities, and have more forthright public engagement.
“You can have the kind of dialogue [at a committee meeting] that you can’t have at a public meeting in three minutes,” referring to the allotted time for each speaker at a board meeting. “There’s a difference between taking testimony and individually engaging.”
The board members, he said, are all focused on the same idea of wanting “children to be educated regardless of where they live.”
For much of the last year, Hite’s administration has been confronting concerns over the safety of its buildings, particularly health hazards related to lead, asbestos, and mold.
The District did its own accounting of its physical needs in January 2017, concluding that the cost of remediating and upgrading its building inventory would cost more than $5 billion. It has been working, with its limited staff and budget, on dealing with lead and asbestos remediation, classroom mold, and other hazards in schools, racing to fix the worst problems before classes start on Monday and to assure the public that schools are safe.
But over the last year, the Healthy Schools Coalition and aggressive media reports exposed continued hazards in schools and shortcomings in addressing them.
Hite has chosen to hold Monday’s ceremonial “ring the bell” opening of school at Muñoz-Marin Elementary school, which last year suffered a severe mold outbreak that threatened its on-time opening. Over the last year, extensive repairs and upgrades have been made to the school, including an overhaul of the HVAC system that malfunctioned, causing the mold.
“All schools are ready for students,” said Hite. “But all projects are not completed. … These are big projects.”
He said the District is working “round the clock” with its own painting staff to remediate lead exposure and also hiring outside contractors. Although all schools will open, some may have cordoned-off areas.
“We tried to hit the schools that were the most significant problems first, and we are working in a prioritized way through the list,” Hite said.
The District has targeted about 45 schools for immediate action and received a special infusion of state money from Gov. Wolf to tackle some of them.
There is also some money to invest in renovating and upgrading 160 pre-K through 3rd-grade classrooms to make them modernized, welcoming places with a literacy focus.
In the years that Hite has been here, the District has gone through a huge fiscal crisis. In his first years, he eliminated such essentials as counselors, nurses, and most art and music teachers after decisions made in Harrisburg resulted in dramatic reductions in federal and state aid to city schools. The District also closed 23 schools in 2013.
The District is not in that kind of shape now, although financial shortfalls are expected in the years to come. The state still does not distribute its education aid according to need, nor is the aid from Harrisburg sufficient. And although the city has kicked in more money for education over the last several years, City Council rejected Mayor Kenney’s proposal this spring for a property tax rate increase that would have provided the District with a more stable and recurring source of funding. Its operating budget will end in the black for the next two years, but only because it has accumulated surpluses, not because annual revenue exceeds annual expenditures.
Hite said it was still up in the air whether any more schools would be closed. “We never know the answer to that question,” he said. “We’re going to have to continue to look at buildings we have to take off the inventory due to age, condition, and use. We’re trying to find unique ways to utilize facilities to raise the level of utilization.”
While “we will have to make recommendations,” the city will “never go back to the point” of recommending 39 closures all at once, he said. That was the original recommendation in 2013, from an outside consultant.
But for buildings that are half-empty, decisions will have to be made. “We have to take a look at utilization and the condition of facilities … and we have to make recommendations for closure. Otherwise, we are spending capital improvement money to renovate places that are not serving any children. That doesn’t make sense,” he said.
Now, the District is jousting with the Strawberry Mansion community over plans to phase it out as a neighborhood high school and install several alternative programs. Hite’s position is that most neighborhood students don’t attend the school, but opponents of the plan, including former principal Linda Cliatt-Wayman, say they were blindsided and not consulted.
“The point I keep making is that there are 2,000 high school-age students who live in the community who are not attending that school,” he said. “This is a facility in pretty decent condition. Naturally, we want to talk it through with the community, and they always want to maintain what they experienced, but that hasn’t worked for the children living in that community.”
When the District closed schools, Hite said he wanted to make sure that children moved to higher performing schools, “but that became a challenge for us in and of itself.” After determining that many of the displaced students were not going to schools that offered them a better option, Hite mostly put the brakes on plans to close three additional schools a year, although there have been several school consolidations.
Much of the underutilization of District buildings is due to the popularity of charters. The SRC, acting on the recommendations of the beefed-up Charter Schools Office, voted against renewing several charters over the last year or so, but virtually all are taking advantage of a long appeals process, and several are seeking reversals from the Board of Education.
The District and charter community are still at odds; Hite blames that mostly on a bad state law.
“As I’ve always said, I’d much rather talk about quality than sector,” Hite said. “I want children and families to have access to great schools, regardless of what sector they’re in. We should be having a quality conversation, but instead we’re having a funding conversation because the law is so bad.”
The charter funding formula pays charters based on the number of students they enroll, but the District’s state allotment is not based on enrollment. The new state formula that allots money to districts based on enrollment, student needs such as poverty, and local taxing capacity has only been applied to new state aid, not all of it.
This situation “creates a conversation about money being pulled away from one entity and sent to another,” Hite said.
To be sure, Philadelphia remains a typical urban American school district – struggling to keep up with the needs of an impoverished student body, lacking sufficient funds, mostly segregated, with the stakes growing higher each year to show that the schools are effective and improving.
Both Hite and Kenney, in addressing new teachers, said that their goal is to make the city a destination for young families by improving the schools.
“We have to make sure people know we can educate children to the highest standard,” Hite said.