Education

Public provides input in search for new Philly schools leader

Amanda Jones started teaching at Muñoz-Marín Elementary School in North Philadelphia about 10 years ago — a year before outgoing Superintendent William Hite was appointed to lead the Philadelphia school district.

Jones, who now serves as the school’s principal, thinks Hite’s replacement should be someone who prioritizes equity. The 610-student school is located in the 19140 zip code, the second most economically disadvantaged area in the city, and access to resources is a concern.

“When we talk about who’s going to lead the district moving forward, all schools should have access to quality education and resources,” Jones told Chalkbeat Friday. “Despite our zip code, all of our students should have quality education.”

Hite announced late last month that he would step down in August, staying through the process to find a replacement to lead the more than 120,000-student school district. The search started this week, with 17 in-person and virtual listening sessions planned across councilmanic districts to seek the public’s input. Students, parents and community members have been invited to share what qualities they would like to see in the next superintendent.

Like Jones, Board of Education member Reginald Streater also has his eye on equity, and points to other important events that are coinciding with the district’s search for new leadership.

“We’re hoping that with the fair funding lawsuit and the federal grant money, we’ll have the opportunity to remake the district to create the 21st century learning environment all children need,” he said.

The seven-year-old lawsuit, in which six school districts and several parents allege state education aid is inadequate and unfairly distributed, is scheduled to go to trial next month. Pennsylvania has one of the biggest gaps in spending between richer and poorer districts in the country. Although the Philadelphia school district is not one of the plaintiffs, Hite has said he plans to testify.

Philadelphia also is set to receive $1.2 billion in federal dollars as a result of the pandemic.

Board members were among those helping to get input from parents outside schools this week. The Board of Education is circulating a survey at sites across the city.

Streater stood in the schoolyard of John S. Jenks Elementary School in Chestnut Hill Friday afternoon, providing assistance with the surveys to parents who were picking up their children.

There are many ways to fill out the survey, online or by attending one of these school-based events — designed to catch parents at school pick-up time — and completing it on paper. People who show up at the school-based events can also scan a QR code into their phone to access the survey.

The survey asks respondents to rank 13 characteristics they would like to see in a superintendent, including “visionary,” “promotes equity,” “listens to community,” “independent thinker,” and “collaborative decision maker.”

It also asks them to rank factors such as whether the person has experience as a teacher or principal, has worked with diverse communities, has worked for the school district, and is from Philadelphia.

It also asks respondents to rank the person’s most important prior accomplishments, from “raised student performance for students from many backgrounds,” to “expanded opportunity for historically underserved students,” to “improved and maintained safe school buildings,” and “is able to connect with students and families.”

The ability to connect with families is important to Jimmaya Sweet, who has children in third and fourth grade at Jenks.

“We need someone who is family oriented and comes out and speaks with us to explain their plan and communicates in a way where you can get feedback,” said Sweet, who is especially concerned about transportation issues.

Board member Lisa Salley, who volunteered Thursday and Friday at Overbrook Elementary and Jenks Elementary, said she felt confident the effort is engaging with people. She said the board would like to see overlap between Hite’s tenure and that of the next superintendent.

“This helps us ensure that there’s a smooth transition that continues to keep the ‘goals and guardrails’ and student achievement at the top of mind,” she said, referring to a new five-year strategic plan focused on improving student performance.

Streater, who appeared at the event along with Salley, said the choice of a new leader is an acid test for the board.

About 602 surveys were completed as of Friday afternoon, not counting printed versions filled out at the school-based events, said Megan Smith of Brownstone Communications. The Board of Education hired the firm to oversee the community engagement process.

Councilwoman Helen Gym said she hopes the district uses the search process as an opportunity to empower communities. “A true community driven process will recognize the shared vision for growth,” she said.

In addition, 77 people have participated in three virtual listening sessions thus far. Monday’s session was in partnership with Urban League of Philadelphia, while Tuesday’s was in partnership with Congreso, and Wednesday’s was in partnership with The PEAL Center and HUNE. There are more than 50 community organizations engaged in the process, including Children’s First, formerly called Public Citizens for Children and Youth.

Glenda Lopez, who picked up her kids at Muñoz-Marín Friday, said that more “can always be done” by the next superintendent. “They need to focus their energy on different things like extracurricular activities. Things that a lot of inner city schools don’t have,” she said.

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