The Philadelphia School District will spend $20 million on updating primary grade classrooms in 11 city schools next school year. If you want to know whether the investment is worth it, just ask Katherine Carter.

Carter, principal of Alain Locke Elementary in West Philadelphia, surveyed a first-grade class — some children writing sentences, others reading books, others stringing letter beads together, some puzzling through literacy activities on iPads — and nodded definitively.

"It's increased engagement," said Carter, whose school was part of a pilot this year to modernize classrooms in targeted struggling schools across the city. "It's increased excitement. We're seeing improvements."

With the school system preparing for a return to local control – and a proposed accompanying cash infusion that would improve its budget picture considerably, bringing the district's long-term spending plan into structural balance – Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. is planning to invest in areas he thinks will move the district forward.

Early literacy has been the signature focus of Hite's superintendency, and the classroom modernization advances that goal, he said Tuesday. His visit to Locke came at a time when Mayor Kenney has proposed nearly $1 billion in new money for the district over five years, a sum that would require a property tax increase – a hard sell with some on City Council.

School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr, tours a renovated classroom at Alain Locke Elementary School in West Philadelphia.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr, tours a renovated classroom at Alain Locke Elementary School in West Philadelphia.

"These are things that we're actually doing to improve the learning environment for our students," Hite said, motioning to a before-and-after picture of teacher Dara Messing's first-grade classroom, which got improved lighting and new paint, closets, desks, chairs, flexible seating, technology and other materials as a result of the modernization project. "More children are attending. More children are engaged. Teachers are a lot more active."

The aim was not just to paint a few walls and install some bells and whistles, but to equip teachers with tools to better instruct the city's youngest learners in how to read.

First-grade teacher Dara Messing uses her new interactive whiteboard.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
First-grade teacher Dara Messing uses her new interactive whiteboard.

Messing, a 10-year veteran, has long used "center-based learning" – setting aside multiple areas of the classroom for students to engage in self-directed, hands-on activities – in her teaching. Her students learn best that way, she said. But in the past, Messing was on her own, relying on Donors Choose and other crowdfunding measures to make it happen.

With the district's investment, Messing was part of a group of teachers who helped school planners decide what the upgrades should look like. And, like all teachers in the affected classrooms, she's had ongoing training on how to best use the new space and materials, from the whiteboard to a dry-erase table that students can write on.

On Tuesday, during the first grade literacy block, Room 100 shifted from whole-group instruction (Messing at the interactive white board, asking animated questions about space) to small-group time using the centers. Messing was reading with one small group of students, but thanks to a new kind of technology she is piloting for the district, she was able to listen in on the other sections of children, too, using an app on her phone to switch between "pods" to check whether students are struggling, to answer questions, or to give targeted help.

First graders use wireless headphones to read audio books.
First graders use wireless headphones to read audio books.

That technology, which costs about $2,000 per class, is only in Messing's room, and the district won't decide whether to use it more widely until educators are able to gather more data on student progress, officials said.

Messing said the classroom update has helped her students. Take the dynamic seating — in some centers, students sit not on regular chairs but seats that allow them to sway and bounce while they learn, which has made a difference for many wiggly learners.

"Kids don't always need to be sitting still for them to be learning," Messing said. "Sometimes, they can be standing up and actively engaged."

Schools selected for the 2018-19 classroom updates are J.H. Brown in Holmesburg; Childs in South Philadelphia; Day in East Germantown; Farrell in the Northeast; Hunter in North Philadelphia; McMichael in Mantua; Rhoads in Mill Creek; Rowen in West Oak Lane; Steel in Nicetown; Taggart in South Philadelphia; and Webster in Kensington.

Schools updated this year are Duckrey in North Philadelphia; Gideon in Brewerytown; Haverford Learning Center in Mill Creek; Lea in West Philadelphia; Meade in North Philadelphia; Pennell in East Germantown; and Stearne in Frankford.