Philly superintendent hopes for stability, finally, as school year opens

Exiting the Philadelphia School District headquarters, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. greets a passerby.

The 2017-18 school year isn’t about new bells and whistles, Philadelphia Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said, and that’s by design.

Five years into his tenure as schools chief, Hite is — at least, for now — not in the middle of a fiscal crisis. After years of stalemate, he has a contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and a brand-new labor pact with the district’s administrators union.

“It’s really important to us to maintain focus, to not start new and different things,” he said. “Now, we’re starting to see outcomes.”

Camera icon JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Philadelphia Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. talks about the 2017-18 school year.

Hite’s signature academic effort has been a focus on early literacy, with a citywide campaign to get all students to read on grade level by fourth grade. He’s also concentrated efforts on improving the district’s graduation rate, which was at 65 percent in Hite’s first three years as superintendent and inched up to 66 percent in 2015-16.

Though he could not yet divulge specifics on the 2016-17 numbers, Hite said the trend lines on both of those measures were good.

“We’re going to see increases in graduation rates,” he said. “And we’re also going to see some pretty significant percentage increases in the third and fourth grade PSSAs.”

More students have also moved out of the lowest performance category on state standardized exams, the superintendent said.

Some things are new in the system, including two new high schools.  Parkway Center City Middle College is an existing magnet high school, shifting focus to allow students to earn high school diplomas and associate’s degrees at Community College simultaneously; and Vaux is re-opening in North Philadelphia in partnership with the Philadelphia Housing Authority. (Vaux Big Picture High School will remain a district school, but PHA now owns the building and has spent millions renovating it, in addition to pledging to provide the district an additional $500 per student subsidy annually. The education nonprofit Big Picture is managing the school.)

For the first time in many years, some schools will get new furniture. Others may get upgraded lighting and new math and reading textbooks. The district is also spending $5 million on top-to-bottom early-grades classroom renovations at eight schools chosen for low literacy scores; the makeover features new technology and materials designed to help boost children’s reading progress.

The district will also add social workers at 22 schools where needs are great. The city’s Department of Behavioral Health is spending $1.2 million to place the full-time employees in a pilot program that officials would like to eventually expand system wide.

Camera icon JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. at the school district’s administration building on North Broad Street.

Challenges are ahead, however. The district remains in relatively decent financial shape, but only for the moment. Its projected deficit, with the cost of the PFT contract ($202 million over three years, $395 million through 2022) figured in, has swelled to nearly $1 billion over five years.

The unresolved state budget also complicates the district’s fiscal picture. Roughly half of the district’s budget comes from Harrisburg, and a continued stalemate would mean trouble. In 2015, when the budget process dragged on for months, the school system had to borrow money to make payroll. Scenarios like that one are possible, Hite said — though not likely.

“We’re hopeful that the legislative body will get to a budget,” he said. “We’ll do everything we can to encourage and assist in any way we can.”

Hite acknowledged he may be recommending that the School Reform Commission vote to close schools this year. The district’s five-year plan assumes three closings a year based on enrollment projections, though that was not a lock, he said.

“We have not made an announcement or final decision on whether or not a recommendation will be made to close schools,” said Hite. To meet state law, any closing that would be effective June 2018 would have to be voted on by December.

The state of the district’s buildings is a worry, Hite said. A district report released earlier this year noted that the district has about $5 billion in repair work to do to its stock of 300 aging buildings. Still, Hite believes that improvements must be made.

It’s not on the immediate horizon, but the district is now exploring how much it would cost to air condition each one of its schools, the vast majority of which leave students and staff sweltering in June and September. The project would be massive, entailing not just the purchase and installation of the cooling units themselves, but also paying for the electrical and other system upgrades that would be necessary.

Five years is a long tenure for an urban superintendent. But Hite, who is paid $300,000 a year, said he has no plans to leave the district. His employment agreement runs through 2022.

“I have a contract, and I plan to work through that contract,” Hite said. With the stability of a long tenure, he pointed out, come outcomes. “There’s no urban district that has generated outcomes that has had lots of movement among superintendents.”