Leaving SRC, Pritchett recalls progress, frustration

Wendell Pritchett quit his SRC seat last week and is starting as interim dean of Penn's law school.
Wendell Pritchett quit his SRC seat last week and is starting as interim dean of Penn's law school. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 11, 2014

Being a school reform commissioner was often a tough job, Wendell Pritchett said - a lot of hard decisions, endless meetings with people yelling, and never enough money.

So he seized any chance to meet with some of the 131,500 students who attend city public schools.

"Whenever we interacted with kids in the School District, it was really heartening. We have amazing kids," said Pritchett, who resigned from his School Reform Commission seat last week. "But it was also disheartening, because we're not serving them well."

In his resignation letter to Mayor Nutter, Pritchett said the SRC during his tenure had only bad options to choose from. He said that the current course is "no way to run a high-performing school system."

In an interview, he said he told the mayor that when Nutter appointed him to the SRC in 2011, he would serve about three years. He informed Nutter several months ago that he was ready to leave, but wanted to wait until a natural stopping point to formally resign.

That came last Thursday, the day after state legislators said they would allow Philadelphia to levy a $2-a-pack cigarette tax that would yield $45 million for the district this year, staving off 1,300 layoffs. (The future of that tax is less clear now.)

The academic year is over, and Pritchett, who just stepped down as chancellor of Rutgers-Camden, is beginning a new job as interim dean of the University of Pennsylvania's law school.

"The work is never done, but summer is the right time to make these kind of transitions," he said.

Pritchett's replacement is Marjorie Neff, who until last month was the principal of Masterman, the city's top magnet school. Neff spent 38 years as a teacher and administrator in the district.

"She is an inspired choice. She knows way more about K-12 education than I do," Pritchett said. He knows Neff well - his two children attend Masterman, as did Nutter's daughter.

Pritchett generally earned high marks as a commissioner, despite the constant crises the SRC navigated during his tenure: large-scale school closings, cheating, massive fiscal meltdowns.

And those are ongoing. Officials have said they will open school on time, but a gap of about $40 million remains in this year's budget.

"It's not like we're done," Pritchett said of the money worries. "But financially, we're at least getting close to stability. Maybe soon, they can actually focus on education."

Pritchett is clear that "we do need more money. Money is not the only thing, but let's start with that. As critical as people have been of the state legislature and government - and I share that - there's still work to do at the local level, in my opinion. And at the federal level, too."

He said he is most proud, Pritchett said, of bringing Hite to Philadelphia. Pritchett chaired the search committee that hired Hite.

The committee brought in 10 candidates for the penultimate round of interviews, and Hite was the first person its members sat down with. When Hite told a story about knocking on doors to meet every family when he became principal of a new school, "I just kind of felt like he was the person."

Two years in, Pritchett said, he feels better about Hite than the day he hired him.

"He's calm and mature and focused on the right stuff: teaching and learning and the kids," said Pritchett. "If he could get even a basic increase of resources, what he could do is amazing."

One of Hite's best qualities, Pritchett said, is that he does not take personally the district's tough circumstances, and the attendant anger directed at him. But the same can be said for Pritchett. His background as a lawyer - Pritchett has also been a professor and worked for public officials, including Nutter - prepared him for that, he said.

"People don't come to lawyers when they're in a good mood," said Pritchett. "The drama of the meetings doesn't really bother me."

People who leave organizations often say they want to remain involved, but Pritchett has concrete plans - as a parent, of course, but also in efforts to create an associate's degree program specifically for district students, who often aren't ready to succeed in four-year colleges, and in new school models now in incubation stages.

Even amid all the bleakness in the district, that's one reason Pritchett remains hopeful, he said. He has spent time at the Workshop School, a project-based school that began as a senior-year program and expanded to a full school last year, and is cheered by plans for two new high schools opening this fall.

"Kids are taking ownership of their learning," Pritchett said. "That's something that could really be transformative."


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