Earlier this month, Philadelphia School District Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. released his "Action Plan 1.0." The plan highlights the challenges facing the district, focuses on priorities moving forward, and puts forth two primary goals: improving academic outcomes for students and ensuring the district's financial viability.
While there have been, and will continue to be, differences of opinion on how to reach those goals, it is time for Philadelphia's leaders to come off the sidelines and help Hite's vision become reality. Whether you are a business, political, or community leader, you must know that there is no more defining issue for our city than the quality of education offered to all of our children.
Action Plan 1.0 notes that half of public-school students test below proficient in reading and math. This is unacceptable, as is the fact that fewer than half of our Latino male students and half of our African American students are graduating from high school. In fact, our graduation rates are among the lowest in the state and nation. Fewer than one in five students who enters high school graduates, goes on to college, and stays in college for a second year.
If none of this changes, who will fill the city's new economy - emerging technology jobs? How are we going to reduce youth homicides and violence if we can't keep our youth connected to school and aspiring to productive adult lives? We must do better.
We know that it has been difficult for the school district in the wake of its financial crisis. We have held our teachers and administrators to the same high standards yet given them fewer resources. We cut behavioral health services in schools, counselors, nurses, social workers, arts programs, support staff - the list goes on - and still expect the district to nurture, educate, protect, and support our children and help them become productive citizens.
After a year without a superintendent, this city has turned to its new educational leader and asked for his vision. With no promise of more financial support, we have asked for a plan to ensure that all Philadelphia children have access to high-performing schools. We have also asked Hite how he intends to improve school safety and the quality of instruction, reduce truancy, and help more children graduate and be prepared for adulthood.
We applaud Hite's priorities to expand early-childhood education, improve English-language and special-education programs, increase access to career and technology programs, and make our schools safer. We also applaud his insistence that the district be managed in a fiscally responsible way.
As leaders in the philanthropic sector, we have offered our support to the district. It is no longer acceptable to bemoan why these goals can't be achieved, or step to the sidelines because no one before has succeeded. And we must all acknowledge that it no longer makes sense for a financially distressed district to operate schools that are underutilized and underperforming. We must accept the reality of school closings.
Using scarce resources to keep a school open that has a 90 percent vacancy rate or a 50 percent dropout rate is not going to achieve what students, parents, and teachers want. Though difficult to live with, the closings will eventually mean improved academics in all schools and ensure the district's long-term financial viability. However, during this process we must ensure that safety is paramount and disruptions are kept to a minimum.
We can all complain about the low level of state funding and continue to work to change it. But, for 20 years, many of us have been involved in the school-funding battle, and it is time to accept that the situation has changed very little for our students. Perhaps if the community backs Hite's plan - and proves it can provide a high-quality education and be fiscally responsible - Harrisburg will be unable to deny additional support.
Hite's plan asks sacrifices of many: students, parents, teachers, administrators, and service providers. It is heartening to see the involvement of so many parents and students in the community meetings Hite is holding. Yet the plan is also fact-based, well-considered, and reasonable, given the existing conditions, performance outcomes, and needs of our children.
The status quo is unacceptable. We must take this opportunity to rebuild and move forward. Community, corporate, government, and philanthropic leaders must collaborate and engage in our children's education. These leaders must help Hite implement his vision. If he refuses to accept the status quo, why should we?
Now is the time to act. Hite has opened the door to the district, asking for our ideas, our talents, and our collective effort to work with him for Philadelphia's children. His Action Plan 1.0 is our call to action.