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How’s local control going? On a ‘historic’ day, mayor, school board weigh in

"As I've said here before — just over a year ago, in fact — increased investment should be matched with increased accountability to the public. Local control accomplishes just that," Mayor Kenney said.

Mayor Kenney and members of the Philadelphia School Board are shown here in this file photo.
Mayor Kenney and members of the Philadelphia School Board are shown here in this file photo.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

A year after he declared the city would take back control of its school system, Mayor Kenney said he was pleased with the early results.

"The investments and personal commitments that we've made in the past year reflect the kind of future that we dare to dream for this city," Kenney said.

Flanked by City Council President Darrell L. Clarke, School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., and the full complement of his new school board, the mayor spoke in Council chambers on what he said was a "historic" day. The City Charter now calls for at least two public hearings on the district's management per year, and Tuesday's was the first.

The new board — President Joyce Wilkerson, Vice President Wayne Walker, and members Julia Danzy, Leticia Egea-Hinton, Mallory Fix Lopez, Lee Huang, Maria McColgan, Christopher McGinley, and Angela McIver — was chosen in the spring and took over governing the district July 1, after the formal dissolution of the state-controlled School Reform Commission. (Students Julia Frank and Alfredo Praticò also sit on the board as nonvoting members.)

Traditionally the district went before Council just once a year, when it made its formal budget request. But that hearing has often taken on an adversarial tone, with Council on one side and school personnel on another. On Tuesday, the board, Hite and city leaders sat together, and the tone was markedly different.

Kenney trumpeted the city's investment — $547 million in new money over five years — in schools as a hallmark of the closer relationship between the city and district. (The mayor did not mention that he asked for more money for schools but that  Council balked at raising property taxes.)

"As I've said here before — just over a year ago, in fact —  increased investment should be matched with increased accountability to the public. Local control accomplishes just that," Kenney said. "And today, our schools are governed by a diverse, local school board of Philadelphians. I am proud of this new board and grateful to the members for their willingness to serve, and the dedication they have shown in just the last nine months of service."

In general, Council had plenty of granular questions for the board and Hite on topics ranging from career and technical education to special education, but seemed pleased with the trajectory of local control.

"I want to commend Dr. Hite and the new board for all the progress they have made," said Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez.

Though it has been in power only five months, the board has earned high marks for its willingness to engage the public.

It has encouraged more informal interaction between the public and the board through committees, which the SRC lacked. That governing body often made decisions with little public discussion; the board has encouraged people to weigh in before final decisions are made.

In listening sessions prior to the transition to local control, the need for transparency and public accountability felt more like "an outcry," said Fix Lopez, co-chair of the board's district partnership and community engagement committee.

Hite ran through an outline of his highlights of the district's performance: gains in early literacy, two district schools ranked as elite schools by the U.S. Department of Education, an expansion of ninth-grade academies to focus on high school success.

Hite has warned against using the school board to engage in magical thinking: The shift to local control has not been a silver bullet. Officials acknowledged the district still has a long way to go to on many fronts.

The superintendent noted that more children are enrolled in schools this fall in the top two tiers as measured by a district ranking system, and fewer are in bottom-tier schools. But the vast majority of Philadelphia schoolchildren still attend low-performing schools: 98,498 in low-rated schools and 29,271 in top ones.

And some Council members sounded alarm bells about issues on which they feel strongly.

City Councilwoman Helen Gym decried persistent staff vacancies, sometimes in subjects that will mean students can't meet state requirements. At one school, West Philadelphia High, she said, foreign language instruction was not available because of teacher vacancies. A spokesperson for the district said the school does offer Spanish instruction, but has no permanent teachers in the subject.

Overall, district officials said they had a 99 percent "fill rate" at the beginning of the school year, and that, like other large systems, they struggle with mid-year vacancies. Hite said  the district is looking at year-round recruiting, and that a shortage of students graduating from education schools nationwide is a factor.

"These are the issues that we grapple with," said Wilkerson.