Can Anthony Hamlet Fix Pittsburgh Public Schools?
The superintendent, and former NFL player, is using a new school of thought to change legacy problems.
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.
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.