Pain for gain in school plan

City schools Superintendent William Hite has signed off on raises for several administrative employees.
City schools Superintendent William Hite has signed off on raises for several administrative employees. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 16, 2013

By Natalye Paquin, Helen Cunningham, and John K. Binswanger

After hearing from students, parents, teachers, and community leaders during an extensive listening tour, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. released a detailed plan for the future of Philadelphia's schools last week. The plan sets out the goal of improving academic results for all students while emphasizing that making the district financially stable is a necessary step on the path to accomplishing that goal.

There are many elements of Hite's plan that will generate widespread support. They include prioritizing teacher training, focusing on early childhood education, and building a family-centered culture throughout the School District. But if our students are to benefit from these and other popular aspects of the plan, we must be willing to swallow the bitter parts, too.

Fortunately, the new superintendent has not only set forth a tangible vision of what public education in Philadelphia can be. He has also started taking steps to pay for some of the much-needed measures outlined in his blueprint. Now it's up to us as a community - and to the civic and political leadership of the city - to support the tough but necessary decisions that will give these ideas a chance of being sustainable.

Empty classrooms

One such step that has already generated a lot of publicity is the superintendent's plan to close 37 schools. The School District is serving roughly 100,000 fewer students than it was a decade ago. It's spending millions of dollars a year to heat, clean, and repair hundreds of empty classrooms across the city - money it could be using to restore art and music classes, expand early childhood programs, and more. Simply hoping that more money will come from Harrisburg to prop up this inefficient system is not a promising strategy.

Closing schools is inevitably painful for some communities and families, and it is not a step that should be taken lightly. But neither is allowing many of those schools to fail their students as they are. On average, only about 30 percent of the students in the schools on the closing list are performing at grade level in reading and math. We can do better, and this plan gives us a real opportunity to improve educational results for those children.

While the list of school closures proposed by the superintendent might still change to some degree, we hope that families, educators, and policymakers will turn their attention to how we can work together to ease students' transitions between schools and improve their educational experience.

Due to closing and other transitional costs, shutting down schools might not yield savings in the first year. But none of the elements in the superintendent's plan is likely to be accomplished in just one year. This is a serious, thoughtful, long-term plan. Ultimately, rightsizing the district's facilities and infrastructure is expected to yield more than $100 million in savings.

Difficult departure

Another core strategy of Hite's plan is to make sure every part of the School District is staffed with top talent. The superintendent identifies nine needed steps related to this goal, and make no mistake, they will require a difficult departure from past practices.

While there is significant progress to be made on this front within the district's management, it's clear that making the district truly performance-focused will require changing its contract with the teachers' union, including its outdated provisions on seniority.

The three of us come from different perspectives - youth development, philanthropy, and real estate - but we share a belief that it's time for dramatic change within the Philadelphia school system. That change must start with bold leadership.

Superintendent Hite has demonstrated his willingness to do what is financially necessary to improve our students' education. Now, while holding the superintendent and his team accountable, we must do our part as a community to support these tough but necessary changes.


Natalye Paquin is the CEO of Girl Scouts of Eastern Pennsylvania. Helen Cunningham is the executive director of the Samuel S. Fels Fund. John K. Binswanger is the chairman of Binswanger. Paquin and Cunningham are also members of the board of the Philadelphia School Partnership.

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