This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia School District officially launched its new academic year Tuesday morning with the traditional ringing of the schoolhouse bell and the equally traditional burst of optimism from students, staff, and administrators alike.
“Students, are you ready for a great school year?” asked Superintendent William Hite as he stood on the playground, bell in hand, at Morris Elementary School in Strawberry Mansion.
“Yeah!” answered the gathered students, with bells of their own ready to ring.
A student at Robert Morris school rings a bell to start off the school year.
“So am I,” responded Hite, and they rang the bells.
The superintendent then rattled off a list of new additions that his team hopes will help District schools improve their climate and academic performance across the system. Among this year’s changes: adding 700 new teachers, modernizing 132 classrooms, improving access to counseling and nurses, expanding Career and Technical Education programs, and adding “150 air conditioners – with more to come,” said Hite.
Hite was followed at the lectern by Mayor Kenney, who promised that his administration would continue to expand city initiatives such as pre-K and the community schools project.
Mayor Kenney speaks to reporters during the ceremonial opening of the new school year at Morris Elementary School in Strawberry Mansion.
Educating children is “the single most important thing that we do,” Kenney told the gathered crowd of students and parents. “These are our kids. We’re responsible to every single one of them, and we’ll live up to that responsibility.”
But despite their public optimism about what the city and District can do, Hite and Kenney both enter the school year with big concerns about state policy. The biggest worry: funding inequities among Pennsylvania school districts and the ongoing battle to boost the state’s share of education funding.
“The state is responsible for funding a ‘thorough and efficient’ system,” Kenney told reporters, describing the mandate in the Pennsylvania constitution. “It hasn’t done that for 20 or 30 years.”
Hite said he continues to worry about the District’s ability to manage its charter schools, given the constraints of the state charter school law. Gov. Wolf recently proposed to use executive orders to effectively revise aspects of that law, calling on the Department of Education to establish new performance standards and financial reporting requirements.
Charter supporters and legislators have long acknowledged problems with the state charter law, but they haven’t exactly welcomed Wolf’s proposal – “very disappointed,” said Ana Meyers, head of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.
Nonetheless, Hite said he hoped Wolf’s moves would “generate energy around [revising] a charter law that just doesn’t work.”
Wolf’s proposals “would mean we would be able to hold all schools accountable,” Hite said. “All schools should be held to the same standard, and right now they are not.”
Morris 2nd-grade teacher Deborah Russell shows off her newly upgraded classroom, featuring new lighting, furniture, and instructional aids.
So funding and charter policies are sure to be hot topics throughout the coming year, as they are every year.
But such concerns were not in the forefront Tuesday for students across the city who streamed through school doors and found their way to their new classrooms.
Among them were Fels High School sophomores Alysa Freeman and Brianna Skinner, who shared lunch with Hite at his last stop of the morning. The two were pleased to meet Hite, who struck them as “bubbly” but also a good listener – “strong and silent,” said Freeman. They appreciated his focus on teachers and school climate, especially in the most literal sense. “My last school, we didn’t have air conditioning,” said Skinner. “It was always hot – and when it gets hot, the kids get anxious.”
And although Freeman and Skinner have their own wish list for Fels – more sports and extracurriculars, better discipline for the occasional troublemaker, and more
Alysa Freeman (left) and Brianna Skinner
counseling and support for kids who need it – they’re excited for a new school year. Skinner’s will include playing on the badminton team and studying AP World History – both with the same teacher, she said.
“If we do bad in class, he’ll cut us from the team,” joked Skinner.
And if there’s one thing they’d really like to see this year, they said, it would be a little more time between classes.
“Right now we have three minutes of ‘hurry up,’” said Freeman. “You can hardly get to class on time.”
“We need at least 10 minutes,” said Skinner.
“No, no – 10 minutes is too much,” laughed Freeman. “Then you’d have all kinds of kids going to the bathroom.”