Opinion: Superintendent search offers a chance to transform the district – but will we blow it?

A parent on what Philly schools need now.

School District of Philadelphia headquarters at 440 N. Broad St.

School District of Philadelphia headquarters at 440 N. Broad St.

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital
Headshot SK

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It’s no secret the start of the school year in Philadelphia has been a disaster.

From missing COVID tests and tracker statistics, to missing buses and missing school lunches, the hoped-for return to “normal” has been anything but.

Across the School District of Philadelphia, far too many schools are dealing with short staffing, unsafe buildings, lunch logistics, and even electrical outages. It’s incumbent upon the people who work at SDP headquarters at 440 N. Broad St. to make sure these basics are secure and in place for our students to be able to learn.

Now that Superintendent William Hite has announced his departure, everyone — from political elbowers to exhausted parents to students themselves — is eagerly waiting to see what comes next.

Philadelphia needs more than a run-of-the-mill executive search. The pending change brings the opportunity for truly transformational leadership: from the new superintendent; from a reinvigorated Board of Education; and from the elected officials who appoint people to those positions.

All parties involved need to step and do better. Not just for our schools — but for the city’s future.

The public needs to be involved in every part of the process

Philadelphia’s school board is appointed, which means its members have the chance to be fearless without worrying about re-election. To be leaders for our kids without worrying about their political futures.

Instead, they cannot even be bothered to listen. They limit speaker opportunities at regular public meetings and last week kicked off the superintendent search process with an invite-only Zoom session. Part of the broken trust with the public lies at their feet, and both they and the new superintendent need to build it back.

The search process should prioritize voices from the people actually in schools, especially regular neighborhood schools, both elementary and high schools.

It’s easy to be a top school when you’ve got a benevolent benefactor or alumni group supplying you with extra funding and gentrifying your enrollment for you. We need people in touch with the on-the-ground reality in an underfunded and often forgotten neighborhood school.

The board should fulfill its obligation as a check on the superintendent

The Philadelphia Board of Education and Hite have been saying that we need to focus on achievement, and while that is true, this year’s reopening shows there has not been enough focus on the details.

I do not envy the people on our school board: it is a volunteer position with a lot of work and many balls in the air. But their standard line of questioning following every bad decision or misstep has followed the template of “how can we smooth this over.”

The board is supposed to supervise the superintendent, not be a cheerleader for them. Yet they have not called the superintendent or anyone else in the administration to account. That cannot continue.

Accountability must extend throughout district senior leadership

The board needs to institute accountability for not only the top dog but for all senior levels of SDP leadership. The latest scandals should have resulted in numerous resignations on desks.

For example, Danielle Floyd, who was in charge of facilities for the SLA/Ben Franklin debacle, is now in charge of transportation. She bears responsibility for forcing dozens of schools into unfavorable start times to facilitate a bus schedule that still doesn’t work — and has left students stranded and scrambling all across the city. How does this person still have a job?

During his tenure, Hite has often seemed surprised or uninformed about decisions made by others at 440 North Broad. Which is it? Either he knows what is going on and is allowing this incompetence, or he is clueless and therefore incompetent himself. Either way, someone should have been held accountable.

The next superintendent needs to spend a lot less time focusing on puffed-up PR and more on making sure that there are zero schools taking their turn in the round-robin of horror stories.

People on the school board should come from school communities

Far too many people on the board and at district HQ regularly show that they have no idea what goes on in an actual SDP school.

Anyone who attends board meetings can see the difference in the line of questioning that often comes from Mallory Fix-Lopez. She has a student in a neighborhood school whose demographics reflect the district, compared to others on the board.

Overall, the board has far too many voices from schools like Central, Masterman, Sadie Alexander (NOT Penn Alexander), McCall, and Meredith, and not enough from schools like Harntraft, Harrington, or Mitchell.

Likewise, the people on the mayoral-appointed committee that recommends school board members should come from schools, not from nonprofits and corporations.

Philadelphia is years away from an elected Board of Education (it will inevitably happen) but until that day, the mayor needs to be shamed into involving the public more, at every step.

We need to re-frame the way we talk about schools in this city

The tired assumption that families will inevitably move to the suburbs “for the schools” is a vicious cycle.

It seems many who hold power in Philadelphia feel they don’t need to care about public schools, because they themselves are the product of private schools and they send their kids to private schools.

On the other side, too many “public school supporters” hinge their entire hopes on schools like Masterman and Central. Fully a third of the students in the city’s most selective magnet schools are coming from private schools. Meanwhile, middle-class white parents use school selection in kindergarten to get their kids into whiter schools.

The Fund for the School District of Philadelphia is part of the problem it’s supposed to fix, and friends groups are problematic. We need to stop putting the responsibility for adequate staffing and capital projects back onto neighborhoods. Schools should not have to rely on the largesse of donors and endless public-private partnerships to have the basic needs they need to function.

Charter schools and privatization are part of the drag on the public school system, but it’s disingenuous to put all the blame at their doorstep when there are plenty of problematic practices to go around.

Equity is more than a word. A blue ribbon is meaningless if you’re letting kids go without food at the school that’s just a mile-and-a-half down the street.

The next superintendent needs to be able to speak openly and honestly about these issues and then take action, not just pay them lip service.

Can we do it?

There is renewed energy in education advocacy groups since Hite’s resignation was announced, and City Council has already introduced a resolution to hold public hearings on the selection process for his replacement.

One thing that has consistently come up from parents in the myriad of meetings since the announcement is that most people truly love THEIR school. Imagine if we were able to harness the energy we spend fighting district leadership and use that toward making our schools better instead.

To paraphrase Morgan Freeman’s lines as he quotes Hemingway at the end of the movie “Se7en”: the public school system in Philadelphia is a fine place and worth fighting for — we agree with the second part.

We need a superintendent capable of making the first part of that true, and a Board of Education, City Council, and mayor with the courage to step up to make that possible.

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