Hite pledges nurse, counselor for every school

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. (right) with Eric Becoats, in charge of Philadelphia schools' Turnaround Network.
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. (right) with Eric Becoats, in charge of Philadelphia schools' Turnaround Network. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 12, 2016

, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. pledged Thursday to have a full-time nurse and counselor in every Philadelphia district school next fall.

But the plan, presented at a principals' meeting at Martin Luther King High School, is contingent on approval of Gov. Wolf's proposed 2016-17 budget.

Wolf's $33.3 billion spending plan calls for a substantial increase in funding for schools, said Fernando Gallard, district spokesman. Republican leaders have said the budget has "no chance" of passing.

Although Hite has often said he wanted to restore counselors and nurses at the 218 district schools, he acted to include those posts in individual school budgets for 2016-17. The budgets were released Thursday.

The surprise announcement heartened principals, many of whom have been trying to run schools with nurses and counselors present only a few days a week because of the district's finances.

"Wonderful news! @SDPHite just announced that every school will have a full-time counselor and a full-time nurse budgeted next year!" tweeted Chris Lehmann, principal of Science Leadership Academy.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said 49 schools lack a full-time counselor, and 123 have no full-time nurse. He said 17 schools have a nurse one day a week or less.

Hite said the plan would cost $13 million and require hiring about 61 nurses and 42 counselors. In a few cases where two schools share a building, there would be one nurse.

"We've always been trying to get to this point," he said. "We wanted to be in a place where if we felt like the potential revenue was robust enough, we could do these things."

But he said it all hinges on more state money.

The district, he added, which has received a partial state payment of $770 million, is still waiting for the rest of this year's money. Without it, schools cannot make it through June.

Many welcomed the news.

"I think it's very encouraging," Mayor Kenney said. "Obviously, I think Dr. Hite clearly knows that nurses and counselors are a requirement for a productive school environment."

Jordan said the union had been fighting to get full-time nurses and counselors into schools for years.

"We have some of the neediest children," he said. "The school nurse becomes the main medical provider for many of our kids."

Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who chairs Council's education committee, called it a tragedy that students had died after suffering medical emergencies while nurses weren't present.

Melissa Wilde has two children at Jackson School in South Philadelphia, which has a part-time nurse. She called the news "fantastic."

"We are really glad that Superintendent Hite is prioritizing these crucial personnel," she said. "He knows that at a school like Jackson, nurses and counselors are not optional, they are essential for all kids to learn."

But Council President Darrell L. Clarke took a more cautious view.

Though Council members have long pressed the district to restore nurses and counselors, Clarke said it was difficult to get excited about the move, considering long-standing frustrations with the district's finances.

Clarke said he was concerned that if the money from Harrisburg does not materialize, the district will turn to Council for it.

"It's hard to be excited about anything that comes out of that building, because more often than not it's just not real," he said.

Citing financial woes, the district laid off all 283 counselors in June 2013. It brought back 126 that fall without regard to seniority, and required many of them to serve students at more than one school.

Principals chose the counselors who were recalled, and the PFT filed a grievance about the disregarding of seniority. The union also argued its contract required every school to have a counselor.

An arbitrator sided with the PFT. Common Pleas Court upheld the decision. The district has appealed.

Also on Thursday, Hite unveiled the district's latest strategy for overhauling its lowest performing schools. He said academic turnarounds would begin at four more elementary schools in the fall.

The $23.7 million plan would enable the schools to reduce class size from 30 to 20 students in kindergarten through second grade; ensure each school has an assistant principal to help with school climate; and provide each school with math and learning coaches to work with teachers to improve instruction.

The project will encompass the four new schools, as well as King and 10 others already in the district's turnaround network.

Hite said the project would be funded by $16.5 million in current and redirected spending and $7.2 million in new money for turnarounds included in the district's five-year spending plan.

The new schools targeted for district-run makeovers are Roosevelt Elementary, East Germantown; Munoz-Marin, North Philadelphia; Rhodes, North Philadelphia; and Mitchell, Kingsessing.

Hite said the new strategy was aimed at boosting academic performance at schools that have been among the lowest performers for years. The goal, he said, was helping schools improve so they would no longer need intervention.

He said Cayuga Elementary in Feltonville had done so well for the last two years that it would leave the turnaround network at the end of June.

Turnarounds will focus on supporting effective leaders, improving teaching, using data to spot students who need help, engaging with the community, and creating a safe learning environment.

martha.woodall@phillynews.com215-854-2789 @marwooda

Staff writer Julia Terruso contributed to this article.

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