Let the Public Help With Teaching in Philly Schools

And 7 other ways Philadelphians can help new superintendent William Hite to succeed.

I’ve been watching the progress of Philadelphia’s new school superintendent, William R. Hite, Jr., very closely. Every business person in the area should. Why? Because Superintendent Hite needs us. And we need him. A good school system trains our kids to be professionals and creators and contributors to our city someday. Ask anyone in Lower Merion or Cherry Hill or Chester County: A good school system attracts companies, incentivizes growth and construction, and improves neighborhoods. 

This past week, Hite released his “call to action” plan for the school district. He says it’s a working document. But it’s aggressive. It’ll be controversial. Oh, and people will fight him, particularly those on the wrong end of labor concessions and other cuts. But it’s good. He’s good. I like him. I like his leadership style. I like that he’s as much a manager as an educator.

The plan lays out his roadmap for improving the city’s schools. It focuses primarily on academics and financial stability. He does not ask for more money, thank goodness. But he demands an improved system of controls, better attendance, higher standardized testing results, and a greater emphasis on technology both to complement classroom teaching and to compete against cyber charter schools. He also wants a closer relationship with the city’s other higher education institutions. But I think he’s missing one thing in this plan: a more significant initiative to partner with the region’s business community.

We are an untapped and potentially very deep resource for our city’s schools, and here’s how we can help.

People to provide after-school supervision. Schools need coaches. And people to help kids with after-school activities. And places to conduct these activities too. Many of these programs go unfunded or are understaffed. Each spring, I help coach baseball for seventh- and eighth-graders at a charter school in Southwest Philadelphia. It’s fun. It’s healthy. But we have to practice in the school’s parking lot.

People to assist teachers. Classroom sizes are large. Teachers are stretched. They need assistants to help their students with reading, math and homework exercises. Or just to be around during lunchtime and other periods to give them a break.

People to actually teach classes. OK, maybe not the core stuff like reading or math (or maybe?). But how about computers? Gym? Health? Art? Woodshop? Engineering? Home economics? Other technical courses that are going unfunded and unmanned? Can our unions and governments be bold enough to bend the rules so that our kids get this help from people willing to pitch in?

People for college counseling. Employees with good jobs generally have college degrees. No one’s saying they’re experts at choosing colleges, but they certainly know more than the average high-school student in Philadelphia. A little consistent coaching, guidance and mentoring would go a long way.

People to provide job skills for parents. Notice how I’m not saying jobs for parents (although that would be nice too, but we’re not charities remember). But an experienced corporate HR person who helps a parent to find a job is contributing to a stable home life for their kids. Many parents I know need help learning how to better interview, create a resume, or dress and prepare themselves for a potential job. They might need help applying for a job, getting references and handling responses too.

Money for sponsorships. A local business “sponsors” a classroom. Or breakfast. Or lunch. Or an afterschool activity. Or a teacher. Or a set of books. And they get to put their advertisement in the school. So what? We see this everywhere else. Fill the hallways with banners. Put stickers inside the books. Read a commercial announcement every morning over the PA system. Big deal.

Money for scholarships. For those businesses that want to spend the bigger bucks, let them spend on helping students pay for college. Base it not just on academic performance but maybe even Superintendent Hite’s priorities too, like attendance.

Money for supplies. Or just supplies. As I’m writing this, some local Fortune 2000 company just wasted a thousand dollars on office supplies. Or threw out a perfectly good printer. Schools need this stuff. Teachers often have to provide for pencils, paper and other core materials out of their own pockets. That’s silly.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Businesses are in the business of making profits. We’re not charities. There are plenty of other ways to “give back to the community.” There has to be good reason for us to want to “partner” with the nightmare that the Philadelphia school system is. So it can’t be a bureaucratic headache. The school district would have to step up. Provide a competent business development staff. Tell us what to do. Assign us our jobs. Work to help outsiders get through the background checks so they can work with kids. Assign businesses to “their” local school. There are many schools with many needs that can be individually “owned” by local companies.