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Laying roadmap for new Philly schools chief

THE SELECTION has been made. The ink is dry on the contract, and the plans are set for a smooth transition into a new administration led by Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.

Incoming Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. greets Sylvia Simms, founder of Parent Power, at a Back to School Extravaganza last Friday at South Philadelphia High School. (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)
Incoming Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. greets Sylvia Simms, founder of Parent Power, at a Back to School Extravaganza last Friday at South Philadelphia High School. (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)Read more

THE SELECTION has been made. The ink is dry on the contract, and the plans are set for a smooth transition into a new administration led by Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.

But, really, this is Philadelphia. How smoothly can things go for a school district with a $282 million deficit, credibility issues and a plan on the table from an outside consulting group that proposes a massive overhaul and closing up to 57 schools?

The 51-year-old Hite, whose five-year deal with the district will pay him $300,000 a year, is easing his way into the fire by commuting here once or twice a week from Maryland. He remains schools chief of the Prince George's County, Md., district through September.

How should Hite begin to tackle the problems facing Philadelphia schools? What should his priorities be as district superintendent? What is the best course of action for the students?

The Daily News asked a group of community members to help construct a road map for Hite.

"Many school districts have promised a lot of things and haven't been able to deliver on some of those things," Hite said. Instead, doing "fewer things well becomes a better way to approach the job."

Such thinking is the way to deal with a district in need of more — money, staff, vision, just to name a few concerns, says a former official.

"It's important for him to realize that he can't solve all of Philadelphia's problems," said Phil Goldsmith, a former interim CEO of the district. "They are bigger than Philadelphia. These are urban issues."


What's the issue: The district says it faces up to a $282 million deficit this year and perhaps more than $1 billion over five years because of decreased funding from the state and federal government and walloping costs to fund charter-school expansions and employee pensions.

"There are significant financial issues, and you can't tackle other issues without the appropriate resources," Goldsmith said.

What Hite can do: This is not unfamiliar territory for Hite, considering that Prince George's $1.6 billion budget was slashed by $100 million three times over three years. The district closed eight schools, laid off 3,000 employees and ordered mandatory furloughs for all employees. Hite took nine days off without pay.

In Prince George's County, Hite dealt with the financial challenges by discussing them with residents in community meetings.

"He had challenges here. … He hasn't been afraid to deal with them head on," said Cheryl Logan, who works under Hite as principal of Parkdale High School in Riverdale, Md. "It takes a special person willing to do it with enthusiasm and to not get bogged down with the challenges."

According to the Boston Consulting Group report, the district's budget problems aren't due to bad fiscal policy, but they were exacerbated by poor communication among district leadership, including former Chief Financial Officer Michael Masch and Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.

Hite said he'll make sure business operations function "as effectively as possible in order to free up instructional and educational" staff to do their jobs.

BCG recommends that the district close between 29 and 57 schools to save up to $40 million a year and redesign the district's organizational structure to create "achievement networks," smaller clusters of schools run by the district or a nonprofit with a proven track record.

The report also calls on the district to make major changes to its teacher-union contract.

Charter schools

What's the issue: About 25 percent of Philadelphia public-school students attend 84 charter schools, and the district predicts that charters will grow by an additional 32,000 seats by the 2016-17 school year, at which point charters would educate about 40 percent of Philadelphia's public-school population.

The charters have shown mixed results, but district, city and charter officials have started working together under the Great Schools Compact to focus on creating a system that considers all of the city's schools as part of one portfolio.

What Hite can do: Opponents to charter-school expansion argue that the funding will come from slashing budgets for district schools, which are already lacking in resources. Charter expansion will cost the district $139 million this year alone.

Although the School Reform Commission is responsible for approving charters, Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, urges Hite to call for a moratorium on charter-school expansions. The timing of the extra expense couldn't have come at a worse time for the district, Jordan said.

"If you have a deficit, why would you dig the hole deeper?" Jordan asked. "That's the kind of improper spending that has to stop."

The BCG report urged the district to take "stronger stances" with regard to low-performing charters by shutting them down and also suggested that charters should grow mainly through expanding the district's Renaissance Schools Initiative, in which struggling schools are turned over to outside providers and rules are changed to increase the length of the school day and year.

Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia Schools Partnership, said it will be Hite's challenge "to reimagine the system so that it's more capable of channeling resources and students to great schools, and many of the great schools in Philadelphia happen to be charter schools."

Hite needs "to keep investing in charter schools and more aggressively pursue what can work in district schools," Gleason said.

Money in the classroom

What's the issue: District officials slashed school budgets last fiscal year by $318 million, an action they said they don't want to repeat.

Shelly Yanoff, outgoing executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, said the repercussions result in a conflicted approach to education.

"It's not good to lay off nurses and counselors and dump after-school programs, the things that make school inviting for children, and then say we're not doing well," Yanoff said, calling on the Philadelphia community to rally to persuade the state to give more money to city schools. "We can't expect miracles if we don't have money."

What Hite can do: Sylvia P. Simms, founder and president of the advocacy group Parent Power, urged Hite to establish community partnerships that can bring resources into the classroom. Currently, she said, it's difficult to set one up because of all the bureaucratic hoops the potential partner has to jump through.

Cedarbrook's Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church has created such a program, with its minister of music now volunteering as the choral director of Martin Luther King High School.

"Learning music is like learning another language. It helps with thinking skills," said Enon's Rev. Alyn Waller. "When we realized [that music teachers], because of budget issues, are being cut out, we decided we would do something about it."

Waller said that faith-based organizations around the city should try to get involved with their local schools. He also called on the district to make sure that neighborhood schools get as much support as magnet or charter schools.

"We know that education will not work if it's just about the funding," Waller said. "There has to be community support, and we are trying to fund that as well."

Back in Prince George's County, Hite was instrumental in establishing a Middle College dual-degree program aimed at first-generation college students who come from a background of poverty, Logan said. In the program, which just completed its first year, students take courses at Prince George's Community College and, if they complete the program, receive a high-school diploma from the Academy of Health Sciences and an associate's degree from the college.