Where do we go from here?

That's the question Philadelphia schools Superintendent William Hite put before the packed crowd gathered at district headquarters Monday night for a School Reform Commission meeting on strategy, policy and priorities.

Like a college professor facilitating a philosophical discussion, Hite broke the crowd up into more than a dozen large, round tables and asked this overarching question of questions:

"What action should we take to get as many students as possible attending schools where at least 50% [of students] are reading and doing math at grade-level?"

For the sake of the discussion, this was Hite's definition of a "good" school – one where at least half the students scored "proficient" or better on state standardized tests in reading and math.

By this definition, as Hite pointed out in a slideshow presentation, the vast majority of Philadelphia's schools (both traditional public and charter) aren't "good."

As a starting point for discussion, Hite offered four solutions that he applied to both traditional district and charter models:

  • Transform "bad" schools into "good."
  • Expand "good" schools.
  • Create "good" schools from scratch.
  • Close "bad" schools for good.

As Hite laid all four options on the table, he said that "80 to 90 percent of our efforts must go into improving our district schools. Period."

Sinking enrollment, dire straits

As each group discussion wandered through the philosophical and logistical intricacies of how to create the best options for the city's students, one theme permeated the talk:

Act now, or the district's fiscal situation is bound to grow worse.

In 2011-2012, the district had 144,360 students in schools it runs directly. In 2012-2013, that figure dipped to 137,512.

This year, the district was expecting about 135,000, but only about 131,000 showed up.

In other words, in two years the district lost more than 9 percent of its student population – mostly to charter schools.

"As that number increases," said Hite, "what happens with that is we have less monies to serve the children that remain in our [traditional district] schools."

Hite fears that unless the district can create more "high quality seats," the number of students in charter schools could outnumber those in traditional public options.

"How soon will that line get to a point where we're actually spending more on students who are not in our district schools?" Hite asked.   Under Pennsylvania's funding system, the state essentially charges a school district a per-pupil fee for every child from that district who attends a charter.   And that fee tends to be more than the district saves by not having to educate that child.

Hite reiterated the need to pursue whatever options might change the fates of students who are currently in low-performing schools.

Although no decisions have been made yet, he said an additional round of school closures may be required. If so, he pledged, "The only criteria that we will use this year [in deciding to close a school] is whether or not we can move students within their neighborhoods into better schools."

But in a district that's seen so much upheaval in the past few years, many in the crowd argued that what the city's students needed most was stability.

It's an idea for which SRC commissioner Joseph Dworetzky has long been an advocate.

"Focusing on a discussion around moving kids from one school to another is not the right focus," said Dworetzky. "We want our kids in the highest performing schools, but it shouldn't [take] moving [students] to another location [for that] to happen. It should be by fixing the school that they're in."