Philly schools Superintendent Hite optimistic about new school year

Philadelphia School District Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. reads to children in June at Lewis Elkin Elementary School in Kensington.

When 130,000 students report to Philadelphia public-school classrooms Wednesday, they will be greeted by a novelty in city schools: brand-new textbooks.

For the first time in years, the Philadelphia School District is providing fresh reading and math materials for students citywide. That $35 million investment is no small thing for the system routinely rocked by financial crises.

"This is the most optimistic I've been since I've been superintendent," William R. Hite Jr. said of the 2016-17 school year. "It's kind of nice to be without some looming disaster or catastrophe."

A state budget deal struck this summer gave Philadelphia $50 million in new money and a permanent extension of a cigarette tax that guarantees ongoing revenues. And the city has spent money on community schools and prekindergarten seats.

So when Hite and Mayor Kenney ring bells to mark the start of a new term this week, the schools they open will have things not recently seen in city classrooms - not just new textbooks, but new technology, a nurse and counselor in every building, more assistant principals in comprehensive high schools, more music teachers.

Early numbers even show a slight uptick in student enrollment, district officials said - a rarity in a system that has seen its population decline steadily.

Philadelphia's woes are far from over. Its teachers have gone without a contract for three years; its students struggle academically.

"We can do much better than one out of three children reading on grade level," Hite said. "We have to do much better than that as a city."

The graduation rate is climbing, with 65 percent of students earning a diploma in four years, but that's also too low, Hite said.

He wants teachers at all elementary schools to have common planning time, which isn't possible with current staffing levels. The district also must improve foreign-language instruction - some schools do not meet the requirement of offering four years of a foreign language.

The school system also has a crop of aging buildings and $4 billion in deferred maintenance projects. Its outdoor spaces are badly in need of help, and the district can't pay for all the cleaning staff it needs.

"More money would help with all of those things," Hite said. "We will continue to work toward that; we know exactly what we would spend the next $440 million on."

Several times last school term, Hite declared his wish to "do something for teachers." But the district and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers remain in a standoff. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court in August declared illegal the School Reform Commission's attempt to cancel the PFT's contract, but the sides have not negotiated since June.

"I do think that one worry is without a contract, we become a recruiting ground for everyone else," Hite said. "Now, we have individuals that have gone four years without a raise."

Hite said that the district has put on the table "meaningful wage increases" and "steps," or bumps in pay based on years of service - a departure from its earlier proposals. Teachers, who currently do not contribute toward their health insurance costs, still are being asked to do so.

Jerry Jordan, PFT president, disputed Hite's statement that the district offered pay bumps and steps.

"Quite frankly, we would still be talking if that was the case, but that was not what occurred," Jordan said.

In addition to negotiating a teachers' contract, Hite also hopes to ink a deal with district principals, who recently agreed to a contract extension through the end of the year.

The Commonwealth Association of School Administrators had agreed to a tentative deal, but its members voted down the proposal, which called for a 3 percent bonus, some raises, and no increase in health-care costs. Officials have said the rejection was more about working conditions than financials.

Hite said he was confident that a deal will come through sooner rather than later.

As for the superintendent himself, he's staying put. Hite in 2015 signed a contract extension that would keep him in Philadelphia through 2022.

The typical tenure of urban superintendents is much shorter than the 10 years Hite would have in Philadelphia if he works through the end of his contract.

"Quite frankly, there are too many of my colleagues who, when things get hard, they just move on to the next place, and do not give sufficient time to seeing something through," Hite said. "It takes time and consistency and resilience to improve outcomes."

Five Septembers into his tenure, Hite says the trend lines are moving in the right direction.

"I still strongly believe," he said, "that Philadelphia can become the urban model for education in the country. I think we are on a path there."