Hite's Philadelphia schools blueprint praised and poked

Teachers union leader Jerry Jordan with Quanisha Smith (left) of Action Now and Anne Gemmell of PCAPS after Hite unveiled his plan.
Teachers union leader Jerry Jordan with Quanisha Smith (left) of Action Now and Anne Gemmell of PCAPS after Hite unveiled his plan. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 09, 2013

People think William R. Hite Jr.'s new blueprint for the Philadelphia School District is "focused" and "diligent." They say it's "thorough" and the "serious and good work" of a "thoughtful practitioner."

But on Monday, it was also judged by some local education watchers as "disappointing," "same old same old," and "lacking in specifics."

Under the broad goals of boosting academics and restoring fiscal stability, the plan calls for dozens of action items - from professionalizing the teaching force and focusing on early literacy to improving the graduation rate and providing better services to special-education students.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan is skeptical. Hite, he said, is simply doing what superintendents do, issuing a grand vision that will never be fully executed.

"He talks about increasing the high school graduation rate, something we all agree upon. However," Jordan said, "there is nothing in the plan that talks about dealing with interventions."

Phil Goldsmith, a former School District CEO, judged Hite's plan as not much different from previous school chiefs'.

"It's better-written, it's more focused, but by and large, there's nothing in that plan I haven't seen articulated elsewhere," Goldsmith said. "There's nothing I would say he is off base about. Now he's got to put his helmet on and get it done."

That's easier said than done, Goldsmith said.

"You may say, 'I'm coming to work today and focusing on these two things,' but the next thing you know, you have a shooting or this or that, or some politician wants to see you," he said. "It's hard to keep to your agenda."

Principals union head Robert McGrogan's assessment?

"What's that expression - all sizzle and no steak? I don't know that I see either here," said McGrogan, president of the local chapter of Commonwealth Association of School Administrators. "It looks like a lot of the same things that have been said for years, with less information about how we're going to get there."

McGrogan said he was surprised at the mention of developing a strong pipeline of principal leaders when the district was proposing laying some principals off as a result of 37 planned school closings.

Public school parent Anne Gemmell, a member of the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, said she found "some things to be excited about" in the plan: priorities for better services for English-language-learner and special-education students, for example. About 8 percent of the district's students receive English-language-learner services and 14 percent receive special-education services.

"But overall," she said, "I was kind of disappointed at how seeking additional investments for the schools seems to be a low priority. I'm also disappointed in seeing such an emphasis on honoring austerity" and the fact that the plan counts on the school closings, which PCAPS opposes.

One thing is clear, though: Hite comes across in the plan as measured.

"I have to hand it to him. During the [Superintendent Arlene C.] Ackerman years, I wished for a more politically savvy and media-savvy superintendent," Gemmell said. "I certainly have gotten my wish. Everything he says seems very reasonable."

Math teacher Brian Cohen saw in the plan a reason to be hopeful. First, he said, Hite noted the need to lobby for more funds - crucial, Cohen said, "when I would definitely say at this point we don't have the money to do a good job anymore."

Cohen, a four-year veteran who teaches at Academy at Palumbo, a magnet school in South Philadelphia, liked the fact that Hite labeled his blueprint "Version 1.0."

Imagine 2014, Ackerman's plan, "did not seem as detailed and it did not seem as fluid, subject to input."

Darren Spielman, who heads the nonprofit Philadelphia Education Fund, called Hite's plan "a piece of serious and good work" and said the district seemed to be owning issues it had skirted for years.

One of the district's priorities emerges in the blueprint as being a better authorizer and monitor of the city's 84 charter schools, which educate 30 percent of Philadelphia students.

"To me, they're taking the most overt, concrete responsibility for the charter piece that I've ever seen," said Spielman. And since the Education Fund has long prioritized teacher and principal development, the plan's emphasis on those things is exciting for Spielman.

Mark Gleason of the Philadelphia Schools Partnership approved of the way Hite's blueprint offers measuring sticks.

"The plan tries to define either what success looks like or the metrics we're going to need to use to define success," Gleason said. "It's hard to object to any of these things in principle, but too often in the past, these have been goals that have gone unachieved."

Jill Michal, president of the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, said she was "heartened by the desire to build stronger external partnerships. There are so many people and organizations who want to help. If we can capitalize on that good will for the benefit of our children, we will be able to drive greater results with a strained pool of resources."

What struck Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, was a recognition of the importance of early-childhood education, of the charter-authorizing piece, of expanding quality vocational education programs, of making things better at the school level.

The plan isn't always long on specifics, particularly when it comes to boosting student outcomes, Cooper said, and Hite "put the funding issue on the table probably less ambitiously than I would have."

Still, she said, "you don't get investors so much by begging as you do by saying, 'I have a really good plan, now don't you want to invest in it?' "

And you could tell some things about the new superintendent in reading his plan, she said.

"It sounded like, 'OK, you people who have been fighting all these years," Cooper said, "there's an adult in the room now."

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

School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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