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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Within weeks of the school board’s announcement to hire Hamlet, the floor fell out when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Hamlet had misstated the achievement gains and graduation rates of schools he oversaw in Florida and listed as his educational philosophy wording from a 2015 Washington Post editorial, prompting accusations of plagiarism. The board hired a former state prosecutor to investigate. A month later, the investigation concluded that there were discrepancies in Hamlet’s resume but did not recommend a specific action for the school board to take. As for the plagiarism, the report showed Hamlet said he did not intend to plagiarize. The board moved forward in swearing in Hamlet.
Hamlet no longer talks about the controversy, and even those who opposed him at the time, including school board members Terry Kennedy and Sala Udin, now support him.
Udin says his initial opposition is “ancient history.”
Kennedy, who had made a motion to rescind Hamlet’s contract, says she was impressed by Hamlet’s “true leadership” when he canceled a personal trip in February 2017 to stay in town during a city water contamination issue that threatened the water supply to many of the district’s schools.
Holley says she saw a strength in Hamlet during, and immediately after, the controversy as he continued to visit schools and appear in public, marching in the African-American Heritage Day and Labor Day parades.
“Whatever was out there, he was still doing this for the kids. He visited schools and was out in the community. I don’t know if I would have had the strength to do that, but he soldiered through it,” Holley says.
During that challenging time, Hamlet says he remained focused on what he came to Pittsburgh to do — make a difference for students.
On the wall in his office is a metal sculpture that reads, “Strength in my soul,” from Psalm 138:3. That, along with another favorite Bible verse from Isaiah 54:17, “No weapon formed against thee shall prosper,” helps to guide him, he says.
Boots on the ground. Hamlet, who lives Downtown, kicked off his superintendency with a “Look, Listen and Learn” tour of the district’s 54 schools and community meetings around the district.
April Payne, who has three children in Pittsburgh schools and sits on various district committees, describes Hamlet as a superintendent who is “down to earth” and who “listens and pays attention.”
“So far, he’s working his butt off. I’m hoping he’s going to follow through. Everything he says he is going to do is awesome and great,” says Payne, who lives in East Hills.
Cynthia-Grace Devine-Kepner, a parent from Brookline who also serves on various committees, including the Parent Advisory Council, says she believes the district under Hamlet is more responsive to and inclusive of parents. She pointed to the decision to spend $1.2 million to add a nurse to every school campus after parents lobbied for it.
Hamlet likes to point out that his push already has moved the needle in some areas. He often shares the district’s successes in videos posted on the district website and social media sites.
Among the accomplishments, in addition to adding a nurse to each school, he notes: The district’s third-grade reading proficiency rate increased from 48 to 55 percent in his first year, though it is still below the state level of 65 percent. The increase is significant because the ability to read on grade level by third grade is a major predictor of future academic success.
A half-time librarian has been assigned to each elementary and middle school, giving students more access to libraries and teachers more time for planning and training together.
Teacher professional development has been increased to three full days and eight half days this year, up from three full days and two half days last year.
A new PreK-5 English language arts curriculum was implemented this year with plans to introduce a new math curriculum in those grades next year. Along with the new curriculum, all schools with grades K-5 received additional, upgraded computers.
Restorative practices training, which had been rolled out in phases in groups of schools in recent years, will be expanded to every school in the district by 2018-19. Training in positive behavioral interventions and supports started in all schools this year.
The school board in December approved a policy banning suspensions for non-violent student offenders in grades K-2, though some board members felt the vote was premature and the district’s administrators association had asked for a delay.
Suspensions are down by 28 percent from 2015-16 to 2016-17 based on data the district submitted to the state Department of Education. But the rate at which black students are suspended remains steady and disproportionate. Black students accounted for 77 percent of suspensions in 2015-16 and 79 percent in 2016-17, while they make up 53 percent of the student population.
Hamlet knows that despite his intensity, some accomplishments don’t occur as quickly as he would like.
According to the 2017 District Performance Results report to the school board, achievement among many student groups remains below state averages, the racial achievement gap in all subjects is still glaring and only seven of the district’s 50 schools that receive scores got a passing state School Performance Profile score of 70 or above. SPP scores range from zero to 100, with a possible seven bonus points.
Some school staff also appear to be struggling to use the new Performance Matters assessment system, the basis for the individualized education Hamlet wants. The goal of the system is to analyze how each student’s performance compares to state standards of proficiency in math, English and science. Once teachers can make that assessment, they are charged with tailoring the lessons to what each student needs to meet proficiency. During a teacher feedback session at Allderdice High School in December, some faculty questioned how they would have time for assessment and data analysis given the number of students they teach and the limits of a 40-some minute class period.
A public dashboard to track key performance indicators in the district was to go live at the start of this school year but still is not up and running, though Hamlet hopes to unveil it this spring.
Despite obstacles, Hamlet remains resolute in his belief that he can move his agenda forward. He’s confident the district technology staff can make fixes to the Performance Matters platform to address teacher and principal struggles, though he suspects some of the complaints emanate from resistance.
“It’s a new way of work for some people,” Hamlet says.
In his second year, Hamlet continues to spend time in the schools by attending instructional reviews and building activities and delivering “employee of the month” honors to recipients.
Holley believes Hamlet has spent more time in the schools than any other Pittsburgh superintendent she’s known.
In December, Hamlet toured Pittsburgh Westinghouse Academy 6-12, a previously planned trip that ended up occurring the day after a 17-year-old student was shot and critically wounded while on his way to school. The superintendent spent about an hour interacting with the students, hoping to exude a sense of calm. Hamlet spoke of the difficulties of making students feel safe while also convincing them to tell school officials if they learn of trouble brewing on the streets.
“We also try to change the narrative about snitching. We tell them, ‘Let us know so we can intervene. So kids aren’t getting shot. Let us know if kids are having a beef with other kids,’” he says.
On a school visit to Pittsburgh Montessori PreK-5, Hamlet again made a point of interacting with students. This time he sat in a kindergarten-sized chair where he chatted with three girls.
It was giggles galore from the pint-sized pupils as they watched Hamlet squeeze into the chair and tower over the table as he asked them about their work practicing letters.
Hamlet was at Montessori for an instructional review, a process through which school leaders and central administrators review the school’s academic performance and other targets. Leaders at schools where academic achievement is lagging present their plans for improvement.
But at Montessori, Principal Kellie Meyer had good news to report. Her building’s School Performance Profile score had jumped seven points to 75.1 and its science proficiency rates increased nearly 17 percentage points to 80.56 — the highest in the district. Even more impressive, the science scores among black students increased from 16.7 percent to 60 percent.
The time for kudos, however, was minimal. Hamlet reminded Meyer of the district’s continuous improvement process.
“We’ve now given her the challenge to move it even higher,” he says.
Meyer says while Hamlet is demanding in his quest for educators to improve academic achievement and that teachers have at times felt “a little bit” overwhelmed, he is also responsive when principals state their needs. “We were talking about needing a math interventionist. Next thing I know there was a call from HR and it was done,” she says.
Pittsburgh West Liberty K-5 Principal Deonne Arrington says she has noticed a higher level of communication between the central administration and the schools under Hamlet. School staff often gets emails asking for feedback on district issues. “If I say something is not working, I may get a phone call.”
Arrington says her staff is, at times, overwhelmed with the multiple major initiatives launched this year.
“To be truly honest, there are days where the teachers are really just stressed and they are wondering if we are focusing on the things that are really important. My teachers all agree that some of the changes that are happening are what we need, but it’s so many when you think about it,” Arrington says. “We all agree that it’s important, but how do we make everything fit in a school day?”
Hamlet appears to have the support of the school board in his efforts to enact major changes on multiple fronts at the same time:
“You have to set the bar high. If you don’t, then what are you doing?” Cynthia Falls says.
Listing the components of the plan — the new data system, restorative practices, positive behavior intervention supports — she says: “There’s nothing that anyone can cut through and find something wrong in there.”
Udin says he recognizes the challenges in implementing the changes, but that the need is great. “There is a kind of a state of emergency in terms of the education of black and brown and poor kids in the public school system.”
Kevin Carter says he especially appreciates Hamlet’s interactions with students. “He’s one of the first superintendents in a long time who can have this natural charisma with students in a way they can understand and appreciate and feel inspired by,” Carter says.
He noted that Hamlet revived the student advisory council, which has been meeting and surveying students on issues important to them.
Council member Rebecca Kukushkin, a 17-year-old senior at Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy, says she’s grateful to have a voice. “I think it’s really awesome that Dr. Hamlet is giving us this opportunity because it is our education,” she says.
Holley says in addition to his efforts within the district, Hamlet makes frequent trips to Harrisburg and has built relationships with legislators. One of those legislators, Jake Wheatley, a Democrat from the Hill District, says he believes Hamlet, with community support, will be able to make the changes he seeks in the district.
“With this new vision, this new plan, if we give it a chance and we all put our best foot forward, I actually do believe we could make this a model,” Wheatley says.