As Philadelphia public schools prepare to open the academic year for 128,000 students Monday, everyone is asking Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.: What's on tap for this year?

Entering the seventh school term of his superintendency — that's approaching the tenure of Constance Clayton, the storied Philadelphia schools chief who served for a decade — Hite wants you to know that the most important thing he can do is not upset the apple cart.

There will be a few new bells and whistles, including instrumental music at all 215 schools, expanded art opportunities generally, more modernized classrooms in pockets around the city, and ninth-grade academies expanded to 28 high schools, up from 19 last year. But Hite, in an Inquirer and Daily News interview and editorial board meeting, said he wasn't going to "jump around and do new things just to say we're doing new things."

In Philadelphia summers past, Hite was facing financial catastrophes, years-long teachers' contract stalemates, and other sundry crises. Now, he said, "we're able to focus on things like instructional practice, professional development, social and emotional learning — the things that we should always have been focused on as a school district but we weren't able to, because we were looking at 'Are we going to open on time?' and 'What can we do without?' "

Local control, but no miracles

Governance is one major shift for the 2018-19 school year.  The School Reform Commission is no more; its successor, the mayoral-appointed Board of Education, took the district reins July 1.

But students walking in Monday for the first pre-Labor Day school term start in anyone's memory won't see any difference, and that's by design.

"My work has changed dramatically, in a good way, working with a new board of education, so that everyone else's doesn't have to," said Hite, adding that he has gone from five bosses to nine who "want to engage in a different way."

The Philadelphia School Board at its first meeting in July 2018.
STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
The Philadelphia School Board at its first meeting in July 2018.

Expect more public interaction with the school board, the superintendent said, and more coordination with the city.  But don't expect miracles.

"Part of this is also managing expectations," Hite said. "This new board doesn't come with any new money."

Speaking of which: While Hite says the district is in the best financial shape it's been in since he arrived in Philadelphia in 2012, it has serious concerns on the horizon. Its $3.2 billion budget is balanced, allowing for some investments in classrooms, but the five-year picture is much cloudier, with possible deficits in the later years.

About those investments: After years of cuts to arts education, Hite's administration has focused on ramping up art and music education. Last year, with the aid of philanthropic organizations, the district completed and released a comprehensive analysis of city schools' arts programs. To no one's surprise, it found that some schools were rich with them, and others barren.

This year, every elementary school in the city will have opportunities for instrumental music instruction.

"It's not just going to be in Center City and the Northeast," said Hite.

As for the remade classrooms, the district is expanding a program it started last school year, modernizing elementary rooms in struggling schools around the city. By the end of this school year, it will have spent $38 million to spruce up 250 pre-kindergarten through third-grade classrooms, replacing dark lighting, old paint, and traditional classroom structures with new ones.

Those upgrades will benefit a small percentage of district students: 9,700 classrooms around the city remain untouched.

Still, the arts and classrooms boosts — which represent a drop in the district's overall budget — may be modest, but the impact is outsized, Hite said.

"They are small things," the superintendent said, "that add up to big things."

What about toxins inside schools?

Environmental hazards inside schools around the city, detailed by the Inquirer and Daily News in a recent investigative series, are also on Hite's mind.

In late June, the state took the unprecedented step of giving the school system $7.6 million to fix peeling lead paint at up to 40 schools. (The district will match Pennsylvania's contributions.)

The emergency repair work has begun, Hite said, but the timetable is not what the district — which has some history of fumbling on repair jobs — was initially expecting.

"We have to manage expectations around this — it takes much longer than we first thought to do paint stabilization," he said. The district has provided periodic updates on its progress throughout the summer. Hite knows there is increased scrutiny on the district's work, with the state, teachers' union, parents, and others watching the work closely.

Despite  hurdles, overall, Hite said he feels good about the state of the district, whose graduation rate and test scores have risen, although incrementally, since the superintendent's arrival. According to the most recent figures available, 67 percent of Philadelphia students graduate on time, 33 percent read at grade level as measured by state test performance, and 19 percent meet state standards in math.

Those numbers are sobering in many ways and reminders of the long road ahead, Hite said, but there are bright spots, too.

Hite said he's quite proud of the fact that the district has moved more students who performed at the lowest level on state tests, below basic, into higher tiers. And he's gratified that this year, the district had to hire only 550 new teachers, down from about 900 last year, 1,000 the prior year, and well over 1,000 the year before that.

"It means that we can stop talking so much about recruitment, and more about retention," said the superintendent.

Of those new teachers, 34 percent are teachers of color, and 24 percent are black. Those are higher numbers than the district has posted recently, part of a push to diversify the Philadelphia teaching force.