Philly School District embarks on a year with big changes

William R. Hite Jr. : "These are all opportunities to reframe our work." ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
William R. Hite Jr. : "These are all opportunities to reframe our work." ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
Posted: September 08, 2012

The challenges facing the Philadelphia School District are myriad: financial troubles, organizational upheaval, academic struggles.

But roughly 147,000 students will return to classrooms Friday, and the adults who teach and support them must still focus on making it a good academic year, even amid the turmoil.

"These are all opportunities to reframe our work," according to incoming Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.

Hite, in a recent Inquirer interview, outlined priorities for his first year as Philadelphia superintendent, ranging from early literacy to school safety. And he said he's not sold on a previously announced plan to organize public schools into "achievement networks."

The superintendent, who will preside over a ceremonial bell-ringing Friday at AMY Northwest, a middle school in Roxborough, won't begin his full-time tenure until Oct. 1. But he is focused intensely on the work ahead, he said.

The 2012-13 school year will be one of transition as the district readies itself for an overhaul.

But Hite said it might not be the transformation outlined in the spring, when officials put forth a plan that would close 40 schools by 2013 and organize schools into "achievement networks," groups of 25 public schools that might be run by outside managers, such as universities or charter organizations.

School closings are still necessary, Hite said: "I think that we need to stop spending money on vacant seats." Officials estimate the district is spending $33 million annually on them.

But he has some reservations about achievement networks.

While he likes some of their features - particularly bringing decision-making and resources closer to schools - Hite has concerns about their capacity to handle that many schools at once.

Any organization that manages schools at the scale the Philadelphia school system has is "ripe for some of the issues school districts face," Hite said, adding that successful charter organizations have done good work in part because they remain at a manageable size.

"I'm for autonomy, I'm for this notion of performance as opposed to compliance, I'm for devolving decision-making to schools," he said. "I'm not for just giving that up to other individuals or independent entities to do. Not at the moment."

But while he might break with some of the methods suggested by the Boston Consulting Group - paid $4 million by donors this year to analyze the district's operations and make recommendations for overhaul - he agrees with the fundamental premise that "our structure hasn't worked."

Hite said the group's work, which recommended the school closings and achievement networks, was helpful.

But, as Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen has also stressed, "it's not a prescription. It's not a road map," he said.

The new superintendent said he would take 90 days after his official start to "review all of the plans, to get information myself, and then really to determine what I'm going to do about it, and how people should hold me accountable."

But some priorities are clear. For the coming school year, Hite said, he is focusing on early literacy, improving attendance, and increasing the graduation rate. He said he would also concentrate on school safety.

In 2012-13, autonomy will be a byword. Officials dissolved the district's largely geographically-based academic divisions at the end of last year. Though the physical offices will remain open to provide support for parents, schools will be grouped and supported differently.

Gone are the "vanguard" and "empowerment" designations to label strong and struggling schools. Schools will either have full autonomy (if they have consistent leadership and have made "adequate yearly progress" under the federal No Child Left Behind law or have shown consistent growth) or be termed "support" or "intervention" schools.

Eight assistant superintendents will oversee 30 schools each, divided by the performance levels. Five assistant superintendent jobs will be filled soon, Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon said; two are in place, but Nixon said she was not ready to announce their names. A third is Benjamin Wright, who formerly oversaw alternative schools for the district.

The five divisions currently without permanent leaders have interim "rating officers" authorized by the state to supervise principals, Nixon said.

Both Nixon and Hite said that strength of principal leadership is also a key concern, especially as the district gives schools more authority.

But in the view of Hite, a model that empowers principals but doesn't "construct systems that focus on the development or capacity of the individuals in those roles, I think it could create other problems. ... That's not a job you pop into and are successful."

Contact Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, or on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at

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