This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Embattled Philadelphia School District Superintendent William Hite got a vote of confidence Monday from his ultimate boss, Mayor Kenney.
“I think Dr. Hite’s done a tremendous job,” said Kenney, who appoints the school board that oversees the superintendent. “I wish he would stay around longer.”
Kenney made his comments at Hunter Elementary in Kensington, where District officials gathered to celebrate the latest improvements in school performance assessments. The superintendent has faced criticism from parents, staff, and school board members for the handling of a rash of asbestos-related complaints.
Monday’s event highlighted what District officials say is an important achievement: four years of continued growth on School Performance Reports (SPRs). Individual school performances vary, but they say that overall, the city’s schools are slowly but steadily improving.
“When we do it right, it shows,” said Hite, whose contract expires in 2022.
Hunter was one of 50 schools recognized for one of several improvements on the SPR, which is the District’s “primary tool” for measuring progress towards its strategic goals, laid out most recently in Action Plan 3.0. The SPR’s categories include academic progress, school climate, and post-secondary readiness. Schools are assigned to one of four tiers – “intervene,” “watch,” “reinforce” and “model.”
Between 2014-15 and 2018-19, the average SPR score improved from 33 to 44 out of a possible 100, the District said, and schools educating nearly 40,000 students moved into the top two rating tiers, “reinforce” and “model.”
The same time period began with 112 schools in the lowest category, “intervene,” and now there are 56.
Since the SPR was introduced in 2014, 73% of District-run and charter schools have registered SPR improvement, officials said. All but one of the city’s 87 charter schools – West Philadelphia Achievement Academy – participated in the evaluation.
Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez said that Monday’s celebration was a welcome opportunity to take a break from talking about toxins and talk instead about teaching and learning.
“We need children in safe buildings,” Quinones-Sanchez said. “But let us not forget that the most important thing about the building is the people inside it.”
Union politics magnify toxin threat, mayor says
Kenney said that although the attention to toxins in school buildings is justified, the issue has become magnified by the ongoing leadership election for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
“We’re in the midst of a PFT election that heightens the issue,” said Kenney. “People who are running against the incumbents are using this issue – as they should.
“They’re rightfully raising the issue.”
The PFT’s incumbent leadership – known as the Collective Bargaining team and led by longtime PFT president Jerry Jordan – is being challenged by a self-described “progressive” faction known as the Caucus of Working Educators. Each group has independently organized a number of highly visible public actions around potentially harmful asbestos exposure during recent months.
And although neither group has openly used those toxin-related demonstrations as campaign events, each is clearly trying to demonstrate the ability to mobilize membership and pressure legislators and District administrators into action. For example, the CB team has developed a toxin-reporting app, lobbied Harrisburg, and staged public rallies, including one backed by national and local union leaders. Meanwhile, the members of Caucus of WE have held parent meetings, staged rallies of their own, and even organized an impromptu teacher walkout at one contaminated school, Elkin Elementary.
The result has been not just a rash of toxin-related headlines, but also a surge of new reports of contamination, to which the District has struggled to respond effectively. That, in turn, has triggered concern from parents, staff, and board members alike, along with the occasional call for Hite to resign.
Kenney made it clear at Monday’s event that Hite still has his support, even if plenty of work remains to be done.
“I’m grateful for the [academic] progress, and I agree with Dr. Hite that we must improve more,” Kenney said.
The mayor noted that the District’s problems with asbestos and lead contamination predate Hite and are due in part to underfunding of education by the state. Hite’s toxin-cleanup plans are on the right track, Kenney said, but the superintendent remains hobbled by a tight budget.
“We’re moving to address it,” Kenney said of the asbestos problem. “But without the resources, it takes a long period of time.”
Books, clubs, high expectations
Hunter Elementary teachers Tara Hallinan and Julia Olmeda. (Photo: Bill Hangley)
For the staff at Hunter, which has shown three straight years of SPR improvement, Monday’s celebration was a chance to talk up the classroom techniques that they believe have led to their success.
The school, which is in a struggling neighborhood in West Kensington and serves an almost entirely low-income population, made strides in improving its student test scores. Overall its academic achievement levels remain low, and its climate score was depressed by relatively high absenteeism. But the school scored well on most of the climate measures, with virtually no use of suspensions and high satisfaction among students and parents on surveys.
“You have to have high expectations of behavior. Otherwise, they’re just going to run rampant,” said 5th-grade teacher Julia Olmedo.
A strong focus on early literacy is key, Olmedo said, but so are the improved social opportunities that allow students to learn and engage with each other at the same time. Academic improvements can lead to climate improvements, and vice versa, she said. But improving on both fronts takes resources, she added.
A good example, according to Olmedo, is age-appropriate and culturally appropriate books. She said her students love books about life in urban America, for example, but also books about people who are forced to overcome obstacles to achieve.
“We try to provide topics that make them a little more conscious of the world around them,” she said. “No cotton-candy books here.”
The payoff of well-selected material is that not only do students read more, but they talk about it more with their teachers and each other.
“We have to engage the kids with the reading – and then they engage socially,” Olmedo said.
That social engagement is essential to improving school climate, said 2nd-grade teacher Tara Hallinan. Hunter’s extracurricular activities and groups create a caring community, she said, and that helps students feel valued and supported.
“There are different clubs, to help children feel like they belong. We want them to feel included. These are our babies,” Hallinan said.
Among other highlights cited by the District in touting the citywide progress: 45 schools increased their overall SPR score two years in a row; 27 schools increased their score three years in a row; and 16 schools increased their score four years in a row.
Kenney said he was prepared to keep fighting for more education aid from the state and said he did not know why improvements in school performance rarely seem to be rewarded with more funding.
“People I guess are myopic, and they care about what’s good for them, or what they think is good for them,” Kenney said. “But what is good for them is good schools.”
The following schools were recognized for one of several achievements on their SPRs. Full details of each school’s report are available here.
Bache-Martin Elementary School (K-8)
Bayard Taylor Elementary School (K-5)
F. Amedee Bregy Elementary School (K-8)
Building 21 (9-12)
Murrell Dobbins High School
Esperanza Academy Charter School (3-12)
Feltonville School of Arts & Sciences (6-8)
Edwin Forrest Elementary School (K-6)
Franklin Towne Charter Elementary (K-8)
Franklin Towne Charter High School
Benjamin Franklin Elementary School (K-8)
Stephen Girard Elementary School (K-4)
Horatio B. Hackett Elementary School (K-5)
Hill-Freedman World Academy (6-12)
Francis Hopkinson Elementary School (K-8)
Julia Ward Howe Elementary School (K-5)
William H. Hunter Elementary School (K-8)
Andrew Jackson ElementarySchool (K-8)
Abram Jenks Elementary School (K-5)
KIPP Charter School (K-8)
KIPP DuBois Charter School (9-12)
Keystone Academy Charter (K-8)
Lankenau High School
Henry C. Lea Elementary School (K-8)
James Logan Elementary School (K-5)
Maritime Academy Charter School (MACHS) (1-12)
Mastery Charter School at Hardy Williams (K-12)
Mastery Charter at Harrity (K-8)
Alexander K. McClure Elementary School (K-5)
William M. Meredith Elementary School (K-8)
Mastery Charter at Cleveland (K-8)
Mastery Charter at Frederick Douglass (K-8)
Philadelphia Montessori Charter School (K-6)
Andrew J. Morrison Elementary School (K-8)
Middle Years Alternative (MYA) (5-8)
George W. Nebinger Elementary School (K-8)
Overbrook Educational Center (K-8)
Parkway Northwest High School
Philadelphia Academy Charter (K-12)
Penrose Elementary School (K-8)
Philadelphia Performing Arts: A String Theory Charter School (K-12)
Prince Hall Elementary School (K-5)
Roosevelt Elementary School (K-8)
Sankofa Freedom Academy Charter School (K-12)
Southwark Elementary School (K-8)
Strawberry Mansion High School
Tilden Middle School (5-8)
John H. Taggart Elementary School (K-8)
Universal Charter Alcorn (K-8)
Universal Charter Audenried (9-12)
Universal Charter Institute (K-8)
Universal Charter Vare (5-8)
Vare-Washington Elementary (K-8)
Louis Wagner Middle School (6-8)
George Washington High School
Richard R. Wright Elementary (K-5)