Can Anthony Hamlet Fix Pittsburgh Public Schools?
The superintendent, and former NFL player, is using a new school of thought to change legacy problems.
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photos by martha rial
Produced in partnership with PublicSource, a nonprofit media organization delivering in-depth and investigative reporting to serve the Pittsburgh region at publicsource.org.
There’s no question who commands the room during the Pittsburgh Public Schools’ executive cabinet meeting. Superintendent Anthony Hamlet moves briskly from member to member of his executive team. He asks questions. He demands clarity. He quizzes them on their week’s worth of progress in pushing the district forward.
An efficient and authoritative administrator, Hamlet recalls where each cabinet member left off at the previous meeting in the Pittsburgh Board of Education headquarters. It’s time for business, not blather, and Hamlet lets that be known when one staffer goes into the weeds about online enrollment.
“So what’s the priority? Find the priority,” Hamlet instructs.
Hours earlier, it was a different Anthony Hamlet. The agile and confident former University of Miami star lineman moved through the hallways and classrooms of Brashear High School, shaking hands and high-fiving students who appeared delighted to see him.
He encountered one student and asked, “How are your grades?”
“I have a 3.6 GPA!” she replied.
Hamlet smiled, commending her for the accomplishment. Then she asked him a question. “Can I take a selfie with you?”
He quickly crouched into the cell phone camera’s frame with the student, and she snapped the photo.
Whether a focused leader or cheerful educator, Hamlet carries the memory of being a boy who grew up poor in a tough neighborhood of DelRay Beach, Fla., who had an absentee father and who never missed school “because you get free food and your friends are there.”
Hamlet, 48, remembers school as the place where he found the support he needed — as basic as food to fill his belly and as significant as male role models to fill the gap left by the father who disappeared.
In the faces of students in the Pittsburgh schools, “I see myself all of the time,” says Hamlet, who is in his second year on the job.
District-wide, 65 percent of students are designated as economically disadvantaged by the state Department of Education, but that number is above 80 percent at some schools, including King PreK-8, Milliones 6-12 and Westinghouse Academy 6-12. This year, the district received 1,383 requests for homeless and foster care services for students.
In academics, Pittsburgh’s 2015-16 four-year graduation rate of 80 percent was six points below the state average, and the racial achievement gap evident in the 2016-17 test scores ranged from 25 percentage points in eighth grade math on the PSSA exams to 42 percentage points on the Keystone biology exam.
Hamlet’s push for wholesale change has generated excitement and complaints among district employees, students, community members and others with a vested interest in Pittsburgh Public Schools. The critics think too much is being expected too soon with multiple academic and disciplinary initiatives being implemented at once.
Adding to the teachers’ frustration is the fact that they continued to work without a contract; the previous contract extension expired in June 2017. The union, on Jan. 26, notified its members it would be mailing ballots, asking for a strike authorization; 94 percent of the members who returned mail-in ballots voted to allow union leaders to authorize a strike. Despite the union’s move, Hamlet said he remained hopeful a contract resolution would be reached without a strike. (Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President Nina Esposito-Visgitis declined comment for this story.)
Hamlet mentions frequently the “lens” through which he views the district. And in that view, there is no such thing as doing too much too soon when students are failing academically, losing school time to suspensions and facing personal problems.
If he meets the goals he has set for himself and the district, by taking the ethos of elite athletics and applying it to education, he could actually solve some of urban education’s most pressing problems.
Last April, Hamlet introduced a five-year strategic plan called “Expect Great Things” that calls for improving academics, eliminating the racial achievement gap and reducing suspensions and disparate discipline practices that more harshly punish students of color.
Hamlet’s vision is to get all teachers using data based on each student’s performance level to drive lesson plans; to engage teachers in improved and more frequent professional development; and, to better deal with student behavior, have all schools foster positive behavior interventions and supports as well as restorative practices, which focus on creating a cooperative environment and using conflict resolution. Three of the initiatives were launched district-wide this year, with restorative practices slated to be expanded to all schools in 2018-19.
He also plans to provide additional resources to schools whose students have the most dire needs using federal funds and money from the district’s projected reserve fund of roughly $106 million.
The goals in the strategic plan are based largely on a report from the Council of Great City Schools, a coalition of 68 of the largest urban public districts in the country that works to improve education in the inner cities. None of the plan’s goals are new to education, and most urban districts are working to tackle those same problems. Also, Pennsylvania’s plan for complying with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act has many of the same goals.
But Hamlet believes sticking to his plan with a laser-like focus, getting buy-in from employees and creating a uniform approach in all schools will produce success in the district of more than 23,000 students.
‘Sense of urgency.’ Hamlet seems to take swift action in nearly every interaction, every meeting, every directive.
In a December one-on-one meeting, Public Information Officer Ebony Pugh suggested to Hamlet that he start his “Report to the Community” meetings in early February. He immediately countered with a start date in late January.
Afterward, Errika Fearby Jones, executive director of the Office of Superintendent and keeper of Hamlet’s calendar, confirmed with Pugh there was no opening in the January calendar.
Fearby Jones predicted this would be another time when she would have to show the superintendent his packed calendar and ask: “Which of your priorities do you want me to cancel to make this happen?”
The compromise — to hold the first meeting Feb. 1.
“His style is to create a sense of urgency and keep a sense of urgency,” Fearby Jones says.
Later that day, Director of Equity Angela Allie mentioned to Hamlet that teachers needed classroom management plans to be able to impose order as well as reduce chaos and referrals to the principal’s office. Principals, she said, also needed to create building management plans.
“Do you want this for next school year?” Allie said.
“I want it done yesterday,” Hamlet replied. “How quickly can you get that moving?”
“To understand him would be to understand the reason for this” urgency and focus, says Leonard Mitchell, who was one of Hamlet’s high school football coaches and remains a mentor. Mitchell, who was also a school police officer at Hamlet’s high school, is a special operations commander for the Riviera Beach Police Department in Florida.
Hamlet’s bold agenda and the intensity with which he wants to roll it out remind Mitchell of the young Anthony Hamlet, who started at Atlantic Community High School with a tall, but somewhat slight, 180-pound frame. By the time he played in the NFL, the 6-foot-3-inch athlete had added 80 pounds.
“He embarked on a vigorous lifting and physical training regimen when he decided he wanted to be a high school football player and he realized that he could be a pretty decent player when he put the work in. He worked just as hard academically to prepare himself,” Mitchell says.
When his coaches heard a recruiter from the University of Miami would be at the next game to watch Hamlet, Mitchell told him: “Anthony, you need to crank your motor up.”
He did, and it paid off with a football scholarship to the school. The Hurricanes won three national championships during his time there.
In Miami, Hamlet looked for his father, who he was told had moved there. He learned his father was in prison after, Hamlet says, he “got into drugs.”
Mitchell remembers a talk he had with Hamlet after that discovery. He told him: “Your father is missing out on watching an exceptional young man growing up.” He encouraged Hamlet not to let it knock him off course. “He didn’t use that as a reason he didn’t do things right. He kept going forward.”
A few years after Hamlet graduated from Miami, his father was released from prison and the two reunited. Hamlet learned the prison where his father served time was close enough to the former Orange Bowl stadium that his father had heard his name being announced on the loudspeaker.
He also found out he had four half-siblings and today, he says, he has a good relationship with them, as well as with his father.
From the gridiron to the classroom. Hamlet had three tries at professional football, first drafted by the Seattle Seahawks out of college in 1991, then with the Indianapolis Colts and finally with the Canadian Football League’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers. In 1994, a recurring knee injury forced Hamlet to give up his football dream.
“He took that really hard,” says his mother, Delores, 70, who still lives in Palm Beach County.
Hamlet frequently credits his mother — a retired probation officer and social worker — for his success, explaining how she worked two jobs to support him and made sure he didn’t follow the wrong path like other young men in the neighborhood where he grew up.
Hamlet says his mother was so strict that the one time he was sent to the middle school dean’s office, after a shoving match with a classmate, he offered to take any punishment with one condition.
“I said, ‘Do whatever you have to, but don’t call my mom. I’ll take my three licks with the paddle and go back to class,’” Hamlet says.
Despite a fear of crossing his mother when he was younger, the two have always had a close relationship.
In summer 2013, Hamlet’s mother needed a bone marrow transplant to treat multiple myeloma. He stood ready to donate. Doctors decided instead to use her own bone marrow. In the weeks prior to the procedure, Hamlet drove his mother twice a week from West Palm Beach to the University of Miami Hospital for treatment, a 140-mile round trip.
It was because of his mother’s advice that he had a backup plan when his football career faded.
“There was always a Plan B,” his mother says. “It was not just, ‘I’m gonna play football.’”
Hamlet had worked with children between his stints with the pro teams, first in a group home and later at an alternative school. Upon his exodus from pro football, he started work as a teacher at Wellington High School in the School District of Palm Beach County, the 11th largest school system in the country with an enrollment of about 193,000.
Four years later, he reluctantly took over the duties of assistant high school principal when the school’s new principal Rodney Montgomery insisted he give it a try.
“He was outstanding with the kids,” Montgomery says. “I think a very disciplined integrity. If he said something, he meant it and it was the truth. You could really trust him, and he had that physical presence as well, which helped.”
Along the way, Hamlet earned both master’s and doctorate degrees in educational leadership from Nova Southeastern University in 2003 and 2007, respectively.
From assistant principal, Hamlet rose steadily through the administrative ranks. Prior to coming to Pittsburgh, he was a director in Palm Beach County’s transformation office, responsible for reducing the racial achievement gap in the worst-performing schools. That office was dissolved during a district reorganization and, just before he was hired in Pittsburgh, he had been reassigned as director of recruitment and retention.
Hamlet says he intentionally remained in Palm Beach County schools until his son, Austin, graduated from high school. Hamlet had primary custody of Austin from grades six through 12; his son is now a sophomore at Northwood University in Michigan.
In Pittsburgh, he was given a five-year contract in May 2016 to replace Linda Lane, who was retiring after five and a half years on June 30, 2016. Lane had been promoted to the top job after serving under former Superintendent Mark Roosevelt. The board, in its search for a new superintendent, was looking for someone with classroom experience.
Regina Holley, school board president and a retired district administrator, says Lane had limited “school-based experience” and Roosevelt had none. Hamlet “rose to the top of the pile because he had more experience with children,” Holley says.
He seemed to be the perfect fit.