Even 34 years into his career as an educator, William R. Hite Jr. still gets a kick out of the start of the school year.
“It’s the most exciting time for us,” said Hite, who is headed into the eighth school opening of his Philadelphia School District superintendency. That puts him among Philadelphia’s longest-tenured schools chiefs, behind Constance Clayton.
As such, Hite isn’t ringing in the 2019-20 school year with a lot of new programs or sweeping policy changes. The 124,348 students who are scheduled to report to class Tuesday will see a continued focus on early literacy, high schools, and stability.
The School District has hired 700 new teachers and counselors, some in new positions made possible by its $3.4 billion budget. There will be more educators for English-language learners, more social workers, and more nurses.
Twenty schools will have new behavioral health employees. And the five new nurses should help alleviate a problem the district faced last school year: When school nurses were out, substitutes were hard to come by, meaning that many nurses had to juggle multiple schools, some of them with medically fragile students.
Students at six schools should feel comfortable in the warm first days of school; the district has installed 150 window air-conditioning units.
Hite has aspirations of air-conditioning in every district classroom, but the cost is prohibitive in a school system with mostly old buildings. The vast majority of Philadelphia schools are not air conditioned.
Officials estimate that it would cost $137 million to upgrade electrical systems so they all could handle air-conditioning. The air conditioners themselves would cost $6.6 million. (The six schools chosen for air-conditioning have electric systems that could handle the added electricity demands.)
The district continues its classroom modernization project; when school opens, 132 classrooms will have new furniture, seating, and other improvements for a price tag of $24 million. Altogether, hundreds of classrooms have been spruced up since the district began the project a few years ago, but thousands remain untouched.
Staffing city classrooms is a perpetual issue, and Hite has taken heat in years past for significant numbers of teacher vacancies. As of late August, the district had 62 vacancies, and the superintendent said the school system was on track to have its lowest-ever number of openings to start the school year.
“We’re well over 99% staffed with teachers,” Hite said at district headquarters.
Hite hopes the district’s practice of leveling, shifting teachers more than a month into the school year based on enrollment changes, will affect fewer students this year than in the past. Officials are making more teacher assignment adjustments before the opening of school, the superintendent said, and some of the new positions should help make teacher movement less necessary come October.
“We’ll still have to do some leveling at the high schools, simply because of how children move,” Hite said. “We are trying to resolve as best we can the activity that exists in the elementary schools.”
School officials are making a big push on immunizations, emphasizing that students cannot attend school without state-required vaccinations.
Some Philadelphia nurses bristled last year over a policy shift that removed their authority to exclude unvaccinated children from school. Nurses said they rarely took that step in years past, but believed that, as medical professionals, they had the right to make the call.
Hite reiterated what members of his administration had said last school year: The district wanted to keep procedures standard and make sure all avenues were exhausted before children were barred from class.
“The principals will work through this with the nurses, but, ultimately, the principals must make the decisions,” said Hite.
Safety will also be examined. The school board recently approved a $148,000 contract with the Law Enforcement Juvenile Justice Institute, a nonprofit run by former Philadelphia police Deputy Commissioner Kevin Bethel, to analyze the district’s approach to school safety, including how school police and metal detectors are used. The aim, according to the board’s resolution, is “eliminating the culture in schools that conveys the criminalization of students.”
Perhaps the highest-profile change planned for the coming school year is the co-location of Benjamin Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy into Ben Franklin’s massive building on North Broad Street near Spring Garden.
On Friday, however, the district said that the $34 million project has hit a last-minute construction snag and won’t be able to open to students until Thursday, two days later than scheduled.
The ambitious project will bring a magnet school with a national profile into a neighborhood high school that has struggled and, like many of its peers, lost hundreds of students in the past decades. SLA had previously been located in rented space in Center City that cost the district roughly $1.5 million a year.
The move was announced in 2017, and a committee of parents, teachers, students and administrators from both schools has worked together to help shape the project, which will bring 1,000 students together in a spruced-up space with new air-conditioning, lighting, windows, and other features.
Schools that are newly air conditioned
Bartram High, Kensington High, Mastbaum High, Morrison Elementary, Parkway Center City Middle College, Pratt Elementary
(Frankford High air-conditioning is expected to be installed by mid-September.)
Schools with new clinical social workers
Bache-Martin Elementary, Bartram High, Comegys Elementary, Dobbins High, Edison High, Fels High, Forrest Elementary, Furness High, George Washington High, Grover Washington Middle, Harrington Elementary, Heston Elementary, High School of the Future, Kensington CAPA, Kensington High, Lincoln High, Martin Luther King High, McKinley Elementary, Meehan Middle, Overbrook High, Randolph High, Rhodes Elementary, Roberto Clemente Middle, Sayre High, Wagner Middle
Schools with new behavioral counselors
A.B. Day Elementary, AMY at James Martin, Bartram High, Building 21, Comegys Elementary, Dobbins High, Edison High, Fels High, Frankford High, Furness High, Grover Washington Middle, High School of the Future, Kensington CAPA, Kensington Health Sciences High, Mastbaum High, Meehan Middle, Overbrook High, Roxborough High, South Philadelphia High, Strawberry Mansion High
CSI Schools with new bs (CSI is a state designation signifying struggling schools that need comprehensive support and intervention)