School bells ring, challenges await

Students across the region will be hitting the books, as in this photo from a South Jersey school.

Another school year, another big test for the Philadelphia School District — will that ever change?

It’s not the only district facing challenges. Budget cuts and leadership changes are having an impact on both sides of the Delaware, in particular in the Camden and Chester Upland districts.

But the need for significant change seems stronger in Philadelphia, with its 145,000 public-school students. Its No. 1 priority must be stability. Trying to provide that will be new Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., who in July was named by the School Reform Commission to replace Arlene C. Ackerman.

Although the Maryland educator doesn’t officially begin the $300,000 a year job until Oct. 1, he has already begun carving out priorities, and last week hired a second-in-command. Hite plans to spend two days a week in Philadelphia until he takes over.

Turning around the failing school system may be the toughest job in Hite’s 26-year career. He has been a teacher and principal, and is finishing a stint as superintendent of the Prince George’s County, Md., system.

In Philadelphia, Hite will find a district with an abysmal dropout rate — among the highest in the country. About half of the city schools’ students can’t read or do math at grade level. Violence remains a serious problem.

Hite deserves time to develop his own agenda for the struggling district, just as his predecessors did. But a sense of urgency is needed to change the status quo. He will need to make smart decisions on spending, with more budget cuts likely.

The SRC wisely decided to keep chief recovery officer Thomas Knudsen on board until at least November, but in a more fitting role as a consultant, to help with the transition.

Knudsen, a turnaround specialist formerly with Philadelphia Gas Works, has the monumental task of trying to rescue the district from the brink of insolvency. The district must finance about $200 million in debt to make ends meet for the school year.

Related to its fiscal situation, the district must satisfactorily answer questions surrounding a study by the Boston Consulting Group, which recommended a radical reorganization that creates more charters and takes much of the responsibility for decisions away from the central office and gives it to the schools and “achievement networks.”

Outside Philadelphia, the fate of Chester-Upland schools in Delaware County now rests with its new chief financial recovery officer, Joe Watkins, appointed by the Corbett administration. Watkins, a longtime proponent of vouchers, could use his authority to convert regular schools to charters or hand them over to private education management companies.

Watkins also has the power to close schools and cancel labor contracts. It will be hard for Chester Upland teachers and administrators not to be distracted by all the uncertainty. But giving students the best education possible must remain their focus.

Meanwhile, Camden also has a new leader, with the recent appointment of interim Superintendent Reuben Mills. But a plan to hire a permanent CEO is needed.