Hite releases school action plan built on 'bold expectations'

Posted: February 18, 2014

Despite enormous, ongoing fiscal challenges in the Philadelphia School District, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. is thinking big.

How big?

Every 8-year-old in the city reading at grade level. Every student graduating ready for college and careers. Every school with a great principal and teachers. Full funding for great schools.

Centering on those four goals, Hite's 42-page blueprint for the future of the district, to be issued Monday, is full of "bold expectations," the superintendent said.

Incoming School Reform Commission Chairman Bill Green is fully on board with the plan, an aspirational document that emphasizes "evidence-based strategies" and counts on significant changes in the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers' contract, now being negotiated.

"The current rules in schools will not lead to better outcomes for children," Green said in an interview. "If a principal can't choose the teachers, if we can't reward teachers based on performance rather than time on the job and degrees held, we're not going to be successful."

Green, who along with Farah Jimenez must be sworn in before an SRC meeting Thursday, said Philadelphia schools won't get the additional funding they need to operate unless those changes are made.

"If we can't do that, then we need to be looking at other educational choices for parents," choices like charters, he said.

Hite's "Action Plan v2.0" - the follow-up to his initial blueprint, issued in January 2013, contains four anchor goals. All are pressing, but the early-literacy goal will be the most urgent, Hite said.

"If there's a place that we need to expend a lot of energy and direct a lot of resources, it's there," he said. "We don't get to 100 percent of students graduating career- and college-ready without getting 100 percent of 8-year-olds reading at grade level."

Under the four goals are six strategies - from improving student learning to identifying and developing strong employees - and then a series of actions under each. But they are broad, lofty goals, with no map for how to achieve each.

And there's no price tag - yet. Hite said he would issue a "financial supplement" this week that would list "what types of investments we will need from all our stakeholders," but the goal is "100 percent of the funding we need for great schools, and zero deficit."

Money, of course, underpins everything. The district's financial picture is so dire there was a real question last summer whether schools could open on time, and Hite notes "a year-to-year funding mind-set cannot continue to be the norm."

He said the district would aggressively advocate for more money and more stable funding sources and would seek outside partnerships to help advance his goals.

But Hite and Green threw in an important caveat - even if more money is secured, city schools will be run differently from before.

"This is not about returning to the structure, the systems, the processes, the staffing patterns that we've had in the past," Hite said. "We weren't producing more tremendous student outcomes even when we had significant funds."

Few specifics were forthcoming about exactly what those changes would be. Hite mentioned possible shifts in training, with more happening inside the classroom, and more teacher coaches. But district officials have made no secret that they are asking the teachers' union to agree to enormous changes in seniority rules and other long-held rights and benefits, in addition to pay cuts.

The PFT's contract expired in August, and there has been little progress at the negotiating table.

Though Hite said many of the methods employed in the past were unsuccessful, he wants to continue the "Renaissance" program that takes the lowest-performing district schools and reconstitutes them or turns them over to charters.

This would be the fifth year of Renaissance schools. Hite opted to overhaul six district schools last year and give three more to charter providers.

One or two more turnarounds could be undertaken this year, Hite said, with a decision expected shortly.

"We would love to do more Renaissance schools, but it has to be decided within a week, or it would limit our ability to do this in the fall," he said.

Overall, Hite outlines 52 separate actions that will guide the district's work. They range from improving quality and lowering costs of transportation services to improving neighborhood schools.

Also on his punch list: focusing on "personalized learning" for all students, improving services for special-education students and English-language learners, strengthening alternative schools, improving recruitment and hiring practices, involving parents more, and instituting tighter financial controls.

He stressed that the plan was a working document subject to change. This second iteration serves as a report card of sorts for his first year-plus in Philadelphia.

Hite came to the district in fall 2012. He had worked as schools chief in Prince George's County, Md.

Of the 51 actions laid out in the first version of the blueprint, Hite said his team had made significant progress on 19, some progress on 20, and no progress on 12. Among the strong-progress categories were items like "seek additional revenues" and "improve student nutrition." Hite said he was getting there on tasks such as becoming a good charter-school authorizer, and had stalled on jobs such as clarifying what school autonomy means.

But although he believes that on his watch the district has had at least some forward motion on three-quarters of the ambitious goals he laid out last year, Hite said the work that remains is enormous.

Last school year, just 45 percent of district students read at grade level, the lowest figure since 2006. Too many students are graduating poorly prepared for college and unequipped to enter a modern workforce. That needs to change as quickly as he can make it happen, Hite said.

"I think this is work that can be done, and it can be done here in Philadelphia," he said.

Green said that's why he accepted the job he will take on this week.

"We don't fix schools; we fix a school, and another school," he said. "I think we can achieve it, or I wouldn't be here."


kgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-5146 @newskag

www.inquirer.com/

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