With the news that Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. will leave his post as chief of the Philadelphia School District at the end of the academic year, the city must now embark on a search for his successor. The news comes on the heels of a particularly rocky start to the school year. After children at one city school went hungry two weeks ago due to staff shortages, Inquirer education reporter Kristen A. Graham wrote: “Systems have been breaking down ... in the Philadelphia School District, for years — but particularly so this school year, with its transportation crisis, school nurse shortage, problems with trash and technology, and more in schools across the city.”
Though blame for the district’s problems can’t solely be laid at Hite’s feet, a new school superintendent offers hope to teachers, students, and their families who have been frustrated with the quality of public education in Philadelphia. Last week, The Inquirer asked parents, educators, union leaders, and others what advice they would give the next superintendent and how the city can ensure the search is done equitably. Trust, honesty, and transparency came up in almost every conversation, underscoring the fractured relationship that the School District currently has with the people it serves.
Quotes have been edited lightly for length and clarity. Additional interviews by Richard G. Jones and Daniel Pearson.
Trust frontline workers
The biggest challenge facing the next superintendent is being able to establish trust. Over the last 10 years with Dr. Hite, he was always polite and personable, but we often felt ignored. We have a lot of talented and qualified people who work here, and there is a lot to learn from listening.
Sometimes, leadership has made people who speak up about bad conditions at our schools feel like they are doing something wrong, when really they were standing up for our students and staff.
The process should be focused on finding someone who is passionate about public education and not someone who wants to just privatize and outsource everything. They need to believe that we can build a strong school district, instead of telling people that the best option is leaving public schools.
I would tell the new superintendent that they can trust those of us who work on the front lines. Parents, nurses, teachers — we’re not the opposition.
Eileen Duffey-Bernt is a Philadelphia public school nurse who was named 2021′s Pennsylvania School Nurse of the Year.
Persevere and be persistent
I’m so used to Dr. Hite being superintendent. He’s been there since I was in first or second grade. But in order to make progress sometimes, new perspectives need to be offered, so this is a chance for the district to do that.
The School District of Philadelphia is big, really big, and has about 200,000 students. The next superintendent needs to know that taking on the size and the needs of each individual school in the district will definitely be hard.
The mayor needs to have transparency in this process. This is someone who’s making the big decisions about my day-to-day life with my peers. My advice for the next superintendent is to persevere and be persistent because there’s gonna be a lot to manage, a lot to do. And it is possible, but it’s definitely gonna be hard.
Patricia Frimpong is a junior at the Philadelphia High School for Girls and a leader with Philly Student Union.
Support kids’ mental health
For the next superintendent, I’m thinking about the academic performance of our students and their mental health. The next superintendent definitely has to come up with a plan to support the emotional well-being of our kids, who are going through a lot.
There’s the pandemic as well as the state of the city that causes trauma. I’m thinking of certain schools where there was violence in the area, while kids were exiting the school. A lot of high school students are dealing with things like that. As a parent, you want your kids to have the same good experiences you had in schools, but now we’re preparing them for survival.
The city needs to have parents involved in the selection process for the next superintendent. I would like to see parents like myself involved in this selection process. This person should have high expectations for our students academically. I want more schools in the Philadelphia area to be a Blue Ribbon School and show academic improvements. I always like to see a leader who gets their hands dirty. What I mean by that is a superintendent who is regularly stopping in the schools and actually observing the dynamics.
Teeyona Crumpton is the mother of a current School District student, a student in a city charter school, and a School District alum.
Be very honest
Facilities management is the biggest challenge for Philly’s next superintendent. This issue needs to be managed much better than it is now. We need buildings that are fully staffed with teachers and support staff in order to manage a building and to provide education that children in Philadelphia deserve to have.
I don’t know that you can ensure when you hire an individual whether they’re going to have all the characteristics necessary to bring trust in the community. Trust is built by people behaving in a certain fashion and for the community to see it. One accomplishment leads to another and then trust begins to build.
My advice to the next superintendent is to be very honest. We all know that the system isn’t perfect and things need to get better. When things are going well, tell us. When things aren’t going well, tell us as well.
Jerry T. Jordan is president of the more than 13,000-member Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
Picking a new superintendent has to be an open process — and I mean truly open. When the mayor picks school board members in secret, it’s hard to believe that he’s committed to an open process for the new superintendent. When the board has imposed speaker suppression, and then they say at a press conference, ‘We want to hear from you’ … that’s hard to believe.
What we’ve been doing for the past 20-plus years has not been successful: closing neighborhood schools, expanding the privatization of public assets through charter openings and charter approval of substandard charters, the outsourcing of district services. It does not make for happy and fulfilling educational experiences for the children of the city.
Dr. Hite did what he was brought in to do and it’s caused a lot of devastation in the district, and we need to turn the ship around. I hope the next superintendent is somebody who’s a longtime educator, at least 10 years in the classroom, somebody who’s come up from the classroom to principalship to other leadership positions.
Lisa Haver is a retired Philadelphia teacher and cofounder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools. @APPSphilly
Visit schools out of the spotlight
The next superintendent should take a bus tour of city schools — but shouldn’t just hit the hot spots like Masterman. Spend a day at schools in all different neighborhoods. It’d be a chance to get an honest look, an honest insight, maybe have honest conversations with teachers and students in terms of where we are, for the good and the bad.
They should also look at the community, the blocks around the school. It’s absolutely important for the superintendent to have actually seen firsthand the community you’re about to affect with the stroke of a pen or the decision at a meeting, these are changes that could drastically impact our lives.
Right now, students and families don’t feel like we have as much of a voice. As a teacher and a parent, it feels like decisions made by the district are so closed-door, so hush-hush.
Shayla Amenra is a School District teacher.
Streamline district bureaucracy
The biggest challenge for the next superintendent? I think probably restoring trust in stakeholders and reducing the bureaucracy in district offices. We have a large number of chiefs, a large number of assistant superintendents.
I think you lose something when you go through so many channels, so many people, so many layers to get a problem solved. You shouldn’t have to go to 15 people to change a lightbulb. You can get the problem solved with the superintendent. Less is more. Just focus our money and dollars on schools.
The hiring process has to be inclusive of stakeholders, union leaders, parent groups, the business community — it cannot just be done by the school board. It has to be a totally open process where it’s transparent. You have to bring a lot of different groups to the table and explain what you’re looking for in a superintendent.
Robin Cooper is president of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, Teamsters Local 502, the union representing principals, assistant principals, and other administrators.