Ringing in a new year, a new era in Philadelphia education
As school kicks off early this year, School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Dr. William Hite reflects on the return to local control, the District’s priorities, and how to ensure schools are “safe spaces” for all children regardless of their immigration status or background.
The start of the school year finds the School District of Philadelphia turning a new page in its history.
For one, classes are in session starting Aug. 27, and are for the first time beginning before Labor Day in an effort that School District Superintendent Dr. William Hite cites as a move to provide more concentrated instructional time before full school weeks are broken up by September and October holidays.
The change meant District administrators worked to ensure that students and families were aware of the new start date with a #RingtheBellPHL campaign. On Monday, the opening ceremony was held at Hon. Luis Munoz-Marin Elementary School in North Philadelphia and was attended by Hite, Mayor Jim Kenney, elected officials, educators, and students and families.
But perhaps more importantly, over the summer one of the most significant events in the District’s recent history took place, as the new Philadelphia Board of Education assumed control on July 1. The District has now officially returned to local control after nearly 17 years of governance by the state-appointed School Reform Commission.
Though Hite said that most of the impact of the transition to local control will be felt in the long term, as the nine board members appointed by Mayor Kenney in April continue their own learning process. But even in the short term, Hite said that the new committee structure the Board of Education has adopted will change how families and students are engaged in decision-making.
“I like that we have a board now of nine individuals who are really using the committee structure to engage the public, and to hear the public’s voice that informs them around the policies they make, the budgets that they approve,” said Hite.
“That’s very different than once a month taking testimony and then — shortly after taking that testimony — voting on the things that you just took testimony on,” he continued. “And I do think that while people may not agree with the methods, hopefully through the dialogue and engagement they would understand the rationale.”
Hite noted that in the long term, a local board should provide “a level of engagement that they haven’t had before,” and will ultimately increase accountability in the District’s governance.
“It doesn’t let anyone off the hook in terms of funding the District… We are locally controlled like everyone else, and based on that, it hopefully creates energy around everyone doing their part to obtain what we need in order to provide a quality education,” he noted.
In terms of other issues particularly relevant in today’s political climate, Hite said that, as in previous years, the District continues to focus on ensuring that students who are are immigrants or are from immigrant families feel comfortable and supported.
“First and foremost I want children to feel like they belong, and that they’re welcomed, and they’re safe. I want them to have safe places to go and schools should be those places, as far as I’m concerned,” said Hite. “And so no one then earns the right to ask them about their status, or their family’s status.”
The District has done training with educators and staff as well as co-hosted a town hall meeting with Councilwoman Helen Gym to provide all teachers with training, which led to continued guidance on how to create an environment that is supportive of all children regardless of their immigration status.
To that end, the District has hired 85 additional bilingual counseling assistants and 30 ESL teachers over the past several years in order to increase support for English Language Learners and their families at schools so that they “have an advocate and someone working with them,” said Hite.
“The important thing here is that it’s not just the work of those individuals to make children feel a sense of belonging,” Hite said. “It has to be the work of everybody.”
“We have to talk about having the right mindset around what our children are capable of, irrespective of... the language that’s spoken at home, irrespective of where they live in the city,” he added. “That’s really important.”
In terms of trauma-informed education and in an effort to better align city-based services in order to address those issues, Hite said that this year the District also has 22 social workers working in schools that are funded by the city’s Department of Behavioral Health.
“We’re just trying to be more intentional and focused about how we allocate services and resources that are in response to what communities need and what children need and what their families need,” Hite said.
For Hite, the key is consistency and staying focused on the priorities to improve education for all children in Philadelphia in the long term.
“Many school districts introduce new things just to have something new, which creates a whole bunch of confusion around what the priorities are,” said Hite, citing the District’s continued priorities as: strengthening literacy before grade 3; remaining engaged and focused on the social and emotional aspects of students’ learning experiences; and ensuring access to the necessary funding to focus on those objectives.
In addition, Hite said that graduating students from high school with the skills to pursue continued education and careers remains crucial, and goes hand in hand with the work that the District has already done in line with the new citywide workforce development strategy (called Fueling Philadelphia’s Talent Engine) to better provide students with the necessary work experience to help make the leap into the professional working world.
“We’re really getting very clear on the skills and abilities that we want all graduates to have, as graduates from a school in the city of Philadelphia. We want them to have a work-based experience, and that could be in the form of an internship or apprenticeship,” said Hite, adding that they are building connection with businesses and have established pathways as educational opportunities that lead right into a work experience and employment opportunity.
“The options could be in the workplace or moving off to college but nonetheless we want the experience to build the opportunity for the young person to have access to that, and that needs to happen at all schools,” he concluded.