Philadelphia's schools superintendent lays out a "call to action"

William R. Hite Jr. says his school plan - including competing with cyber charters and boosting student performance - is workable and revenue-neutral. The plan also calls for tighter controls to ensure testing integrity as dozens of city schools remain under investigation for alleged cheating.
William R. Hite Jr. says his school plan - including competing with cyber charters and boosting student performance - is workable and revenue-neutral. The plan also calls for tighter controls to ensure testing integrity as dozens of city schools remain under investigation for alleged cheating. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 08, 2013

It is William R. Hite Jr.'s "call to action," a 25-page document that maps out strategy for the future of the Philadelphia School District.

And, despite the school system's brutal budget picture - a projected $1 billion deficit over five years, preparing to close one in six schools - Hite's blueprint, just released, is ambitious.

He wants to create a virtual school to compete with cyber charter schools that now take district students. He wants to "professionalize teaching," in Philadelphia, rework outdated graduation policies, improve student nutrition, boost the number of students who score well on the SAT and Advanced Placement exams, and increase the percentage of graduates who earn college degrees within six years.

He aims to fix outdated business practices "that put the whole district at risk," and to insist on better customer service across the system, no small feat in a large bureaucracy historically slow to embrace change.

Yet, Hite knows he lacks the infrastructure to make the plan work.

And he's aware he can't spend money the system doesn't have, as was previous district practice. This plan, he said, is revenue-neutral and still relies on the 37 school closings announced last month and a five-year financial plan that demands hundreds of millions in labor concessions and other savings.

What he didn't want was to issue a fiat, a laundry list of lofty goals with no way to implement them, he said in an interview. Still, the plan has no time table, and the actions it calls for do not come with a pricetag or priority order.

And he didn't mean for his "Action Plan v1.0" - the title is meant to signal it is a working document subject to change - to be the final word on his superintendency, which began more than three months ago.

"Naturally, we will have a set of metrics that are very rigorous and ambitious," Hite said. "This gives us something to work toward."

Two big ideas - Hite calls them his "anchor goals" - drive the plan: improving academics and establishing financial stability. Under those are six strategies, with actions for each.

The six strategies focus on ensuring financial stability; improving student outcomes; building a "system of excellent schools;" acknowledging, recruiting, and keeping top talent; becoming a "family-centered" organization; and becoming a more accountable system.

On the revenue side, the only mention of new money - other than the savings built into the five-year plan - is a call to "continuously seek additional resources from public and private sources." A coalition of the district's teachers' union and community groups recently released its own report criticizing the district for failing to fight for more state revenue.

Hite said the district's lax financial controls put it at risk. For instance, it has no "position control system," meaning employees can be hired with no way to pay them.

"That's wrought with the ability for mismanagement," Hite said. "We could be paying more individuals than we have budgeted for."

There's no "asset management system," no central way to keep track of goods the district buys. Textbooks could be bought at one school and sit lost in a closet somewhere.

Grants need to be managed better, too, he said. In the past, some federal grant money has had to be returned because it was not spent by the end of the year.

"We should never be in a position where we are returning money for any reason," Hite said.

Most of the plan, however, deals with the main business of the district: how it educates students.

Hite wants more students reading by third grade, more eighth graders earning a B in algebra, more ninth graders earning a C or better in geometry and a B or better in English. (Those grades correlate to a higher likelihood of future success.)

To get more students to high school graduation - 60 percent currently finish in four years - Hite wants to use early-warning systems that are now in effect in some cases but not universally. Research shows students likely to drop out demonstrate problems with grades, behavior, and punctuality by sixth grade.

There should be more seats in pre-kindergarten programs, a stronger literacy curriculum, more seats in "relevant and high-quality" vocational programs, and more innovation, especially in high schools.

That will start with a district-run virtual school to open in the fall, an acknowledgment that district students are flocking to cyber charter schools, whose quality has been spotty.

"We think we can do this work better and provide a more comprehensive experience for students, and actually compete with individuals who are taking students from us," Hite said.

The money for the virtual school will come from the $19 million already set aside in the 2014 budget for new, high-quality seats.

There will also be more "blended learning" opportunities - a combination of computer and in-class instruction - at the high school level, but that likely won't happen until the following school year.

Colleges and universities will also play a bigger role in city schools, Hite said.

As for safety, Hite said that in the last school year, there were 4,059 violent incidents citywide and more than 45,000 suspensions. "[W]e have yet to ensure all students feel safe and welcomed every day in every school," the plan said. That echoes the findings of "Assault on Learning," an Inquirer investigative series that found widespread violence in city schools.

The way to combat that, Hite says, is "holistic climate and culture programs" such as peer mediation and restorative practices, used sporadically in the district now but never successfully replicated citywide.

Turning around failing schools, either internally or as district schools, will remain part of the system's game plan, but Hite also emphasized that the district needs to better manage charter schools, whose performance the action plan points out "closely mirrors that of district-managed schools."

About 30 percent of all city students attend 84 city charter schools, and the district's charter office is bare-bones.

Hite wants teachers to spend more time collaborating and principals to spend more time being instructional leaders. Teacher training must improve and be centered in the classroom, he said.

He highlighted testing integrity, a hot-button issue as dozens of city schools remain under investigation for alleged cheating on state tests. The plan calls for tighter controls, "the appropriate action taken against offenders, and aligning system incentives more appropriately."

And he wants to introduce a "change management program" - in essence, a way to articulate "here's what we're going to expect from everyone in terms of their behavior around this one thing."

An example of that, Hite said, is a system used in his former district in Prince George's County, Md. Staffers were directed to take attendance every day, in every class, a simple enough concept, but a rule that many ignored.

So officials started monitoring who did not take attendance and asked them why they hadn't. Staff behavior changed.

"We won't know how we can address student absenteeism if we don't know who's absent," Hite said.

That could come into play as the district addresses customer service. Hite says he wants a real focus on parents and families rather than on "the adults who work in the system."

"In some respects, you have to change behaviors," he said. "The behaviors could be how we greet individuals: 'How are you today? How may I help you?' as opposed to 'What do you want and why are you bothering me?' "

From academics to intangibles, the plan calls for massive changes. But, as Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn wrote in his introduction to the document, sea changes in education mean the district must up its game.

"The era of unaccounable, publically funded district monopolies," Kihn wrote, "has ended."


Contact Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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