Thursday 23rd November 2017,
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An Interview with Philadelphia School District Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn

Paul Kihn

By Samuel Ruddy

Paul Kihn serves as the Deputy Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia. His job is to be the second-in-command for Superintendent William R. Hite, Jr., and manage the day-to-day operations of the School District. Kihn is a former New York City public school English teacher and has taught English abroad.

First, I’d like to ask you a little bit about your background. What made you want to go from teaching to more of an administrative role?

PK: I really wanted to be in a position where I could affect change at scale, and I have the most incredible respect for teachers who work every day with literally hundreds of students, and I was at a point in my career where I was interested in working not within a single school, but across schools and across systems. So it was really my desire to have change at the level of the system rather than in my classrooms.

Talking about change in the system, let’s move to issues that are politically pressing right now. There is an ongoing budget crisis, and it was reported that you are closing schools and cutting thousands of jobs right now. Noontime aides, school secretaries, assistant principals are being cut across the board. How are you dealing with the budget crisis, and what are the most difficult choices that you have to make?

PK: The way we’re dealing with the budget crisis is that we are doing our very best to be fiscally responsible, and what that means is that we are only budgeting for money that we know we have. You’ve heard about the $304 million structural deficit that we’ve got for this coming fiscal year, and we made a decision to budget only for the money that we have at hand, and not for money that we wished we had. So the first way that we’re dealing with the budget crisis is we’re making a lot of incredibly hard decisions in order to live within our means. That’s why we closed the number of schools that we’ve closed. That’s why we recently announced the number of layoffs that we announced. That’s why we are asking for shared sacrifice from every single one of our partners from charter colleagues to employees and so on. So the first thing we’re doing is trying to live within our means.

The second thing we’re doing is we’re working incredibly hard to try and get additional revenue from the city and the state, and we are, I think, making some progress on that front. I’m sure you’ve read the news about what’s happening in the city and at the state level. So we are cautiously optimistic, but again, none of that is guaranteed until the city passes their final budget and the state passes their final budget, hopefully on June 30th. So we are doing our best to balance what we know we have with what we’re asking for.

Is there any way, besides this potential windfall of money that you may or may not be receiving, to save a lot of these extracurricular activities or the important administrative staff? Is there anything else that could be done?

PK: I won’t at this point say that there is nothing else that could be done, because I’m a firm believer that you have to leave no stone unturned. What I will say is that we have spent the past several months trying to find cost savings and cost reductions at every corner of the organization, because the last thing in the world we would ever want to do is impact the experience of students and their families.

So I don’t believe at this point that there are any large cost savings measures that we could take that would free up resources to put extracurriculars back into schools. What I do believe is that we have an opportunity to keep looking for cost-saving measures, which we will do, and focus on the largest areas of opportunity for us which include additional, sustainable revenue from the city and the state and as I said, the shared sacrifice that we’re asking for from all of our partners and all of our employees. I think that’s the reality of where we are.

The Philadelphia Inquirer interviewed a lot of people whose jobs were being cut, and several of them said that they could not see how a school could be run without these positions. Where did you figure out that these were the specific jobs that were pretty much cut out of the Philadelphia education system?

PK: The first thing that we did when we were looking at the budget is that we identified the things which we were required to cover. So we have to pay our debt service or we’re in default, and we have to make the charter school payments or we’re breaking the charter school law. Then, we are left with an amount of money with which we have to cover the education within our own, district-run schools and the central administration. So we first went to the central administration and said, “What else can we take out of the central administration?” It was an additional 30%, which was on top of the almost 50% that we cut last year. So 60% or 70% has been cut out of the central administration, and there was literally nowhere else that we could see to reduce the central administration even further.

So then we’re left with the schools, and what we did was we looked at the school budgets. We divided the school budget equally among schools according to the formulas we’ve got in terms of where students are attending, and the money that was left in the school budgets paid for a principal and teachers up to the maximum class size and nothing else. So there was no money to pay for secretaries, and there was no money to pay for guidance counselors. If you think of the school building as a place where at a minimum, you will need an administrative leader as the principal and you’ll need teachers to teach classes, that’s essentially what we have.

Once we start receiving the additional revenue that we’re hoping to receive, we’ll be in the position to begin to bring back some of the services that you’re describing. So you could imagine the situation in which we would have enough money to bring back guidance counselors and/or secretaries and/or pay for some of the extracurriculars. The money that we receive from the city and the state is going to go into the schools in order for us to be able to afford those things that will make the schools look more like schools. I don’t think any of us believe that we will be able to effectively operate schools with only principals and teachers, but we are relying on the additional revenue we’ve requested in order for us to actually have the services that students and families deserve to have in their schools.

There has been public outrage about how the city is breaking ground on a new $400 million prison complex while forcing you guys to make these bare-bone cuts. Could you comment on the city’s budget priorities, and what do you think the school district could have done with this money?

PK: My first response is that I have a job to do, and the district has a job to do. And that is to do the very best that we can with the budget that we’ve got. I understand that the city and the state set their own budget priorities according to their own analysis and what they see is the need across all of their very complicated budgets, and it isn’t for me to say whether or not the city or state needs that additional prison. I actually don’t know. I haven’t looked at the evidence, I haven’t done the analysis. My understanding is that they do that, and they set their priorities across a lot of different services.

What I have to do, and what I think that we have to do with the district is that we must do the best we can with the budget that we do have and the budget we receive from the city and the state. As I’ve said before, I believe that the revenue that we’re getting from the city and the state is not enough for us to have the kind of school system that we want, and that’s why we’ve gone back to the city and back to the state, and we’ve said that we don’t think that on the first pass we’ve been allocated enough money to run our schools. And on both the city side and the state side, they are now saying to us, “Well, now that we see what’s happening in the district, we agree with you, and we’re trying to figure out how to provide you with additional revenue.”

I don’t know where they’re going to get that from, and in some sense, I’m agnostic in terms of where they’re going to get that from. It’s just important for me that we are provided with the revenue that we need to provide a good, quality education to students and their families.

It seems to me that, theoretically, if the city were to say that this $400 million that was going to build the prison is now yours, that would completely cover you’re budget deficit.

PK: Our current budget deficit is $304 million, and I think that if they said that it was to come from the prison, or if they were to say that it was to come from some other area of the budget if they were to decrease services in some other area, or they found additional revenue somewhere, we would be, as I said, agnostic or indifferent as to where it came from. We just know that we need additional revenue to run good, quality schools. I mean one of the things that I would add, I guess, is that it’s a stark contrast when you compare prison funding to school funding, and we all know that a city and the state have to provide a variety of different services to citizens, which include both of these things.

I think I would say that I am hoping that in the next five, 10, 15, 20 years, we’ll get to a point where we actually need fewer prisons, and I think that the district and schools certainly have a role to play in that. I think about this in a sort of longer term vision about what it is we’re hoping to accomplish and the kinds of graduates we want to see emerging from our schools, people who go on to lead happy and productive lives and have access to good job opportunities, who go on to higher education or career technical training. If our vision comes to pass, I imagine we’ll be in a position where we’ll need fewer prisons. So that’s why the comparison is a stark one. But in terms of where we get the revenue, we’re agnostic.

As a former teacher, you’ve experienced this from both sides of the school administrative spectrum, first as a teacher and now as an administrator. What would you say is your opinion on “last hired, first fired” policies?

PK: I believe that school administrators should have the maximum possible choice as to who is working in their buildings. As a principal and as member of a leadership team at a school, you have a vision for your school, you understand deeply the students who are attending your school, you know your families, and therefore you have a good sense of the kind of skills and abilities that you’ll need amongst your staff in order to effectively accomplish your mission. For that reason, I think that it’s important that principals and school leadership teams have choice over who is working within their schools, and I think it allows them to be more effective managers, if you will. I also believe that we have a lot of incredibly talented teachers currently working within our system, and I think that means that principals have a lot of choice as to who they want to work within their schools.

Could you explain what it means for schools to be converted in to Renaissance Charter Schools, which have also been in the news recently?

PK: This is not a new idea, but it’s an idea that’s been around for a number of years. The Renaissance Charter Schools have been a part of the school district’s turnaround strategy. By that, I mean that we have a very particular approach that we take with regard to the district’s worst performing schools, and the idea is as follows: You identify the lowest performing schools and you convert them into so-called Renaissance Schools.

There are two kinds of Renaissance Schools. The first kind is the one operated by charter operators, and those are the Renaissance Charter Schools. The second kind of Renaissance Schools are called Promise Academies, because those are run by the district. So the district has a commitment to turn around its lowest performing schools by either converting them into Renaissance Charter Schools, which are special kinds of charter schools with special constraints attached to them, or by turning them into Promise Academies and running them within the district, just according to different sets of operating principles. And we continue to do both. We continue to do Renaissance Charter Schools, and we continue to do district-run Promise Academies as a way of turning around our lowest performing schools.

Could you comment on what some of those constraints are?

PK: The Renaissance Charter Schools look and act very much like neighborhood schools. They are required to take a catchment area of students, so they’re required to enroll basically only students that live in a particular neighborhood, and they have a set of performance standards that they are accountable to. So the idea is that the charter operator will come in and simply take over the running of a particular school in a neighborhood, working with all the same students who were attending and continuing to attend the neighborhood schools. Most free-standing charter schools, as you probably know, operate according to a lottery and can take students from anywhere in the city.

A Renaissance Charter School does not work that way. A Renaissance School has to stay within the school building, and they have got to accept students from within that neighborhood catchment area. So they act just like a neighborhood school, and they have to demonstrate consistent improved performance amongst the students who attend the school. And we’re very, very lucky in Philadelphia, because we’ve got the country’s best turnaround charter operators here in the city. This year we ran a process, we did a pre-screening, and we had three different charter operators who demonstrated significant improvements in the student outcomes based on their prior experience. So we’re fortunate that they’re here, and at the same time we remain committed to the district also doing its best to turn around low-performing schools according to the Promise Academy model.

The Governor and Congressman Bob Brady have been reported to be seeking funds as for the district. Are either of their plans realistic in terms of saving the schools from these cuts? Do you have any idea as to how much you are going to get and how much it will offset this crisis?

PK: You know, at this point we don’t know, and as I said, that’s why we have the budget that we’ve got because we are budgeting for the money that we know we have. By the time you’ve published, we’re probably going to have much more clarity because the state’s budget is due by June 30. At that point, we will know more or less how realistic these plans are, and we’ve certainly heard about dozens of plans. As I’ve said to you, we are not in a position to assess which of these has greater or less merit. We simply have a financial crisis that we’ve asked the state to help us solve, and many people within the state have signaled their willingness to solve it.

There have been many, many, many different ideas. I don’t know which of these are more or less realistic or so-called, but what I do know is that there is an incredible willingness amongst people in the state to step up and help us resolve this, and we will know within the next couple of weeks what that looks like and whether or not it’s going to be possible.

And the same thing has been true for the city. Both the Mayor and the City Council have gone to extraordinary lengths to help us solve this financial crisis. And there were many ideas that were floated around in the city, and now it looks like the city has come together a particular set of initiatives that will come to provide the revenue that we have asked for from the city. But again, I think in terms of when the state budget is done over the next couple of weeks, we’ll have a clearer sense.

You mentioned earlier that you really wanted to affect change on a broad scale, and that is why you became a deputy superintendent. How do you see yourself improving the school system in the future?

PK: Well, I’ll tell you the things that I’m very focused on doing in order to help improve the system. The first thing is people, and education is an enterprise that requires talented people everywhere. If you think about the heart of the work that we do, it takes place in the classroom. So you’ve got to have incredibly talented, innovative, resilient, thoughtful people as teachers in every single one of your classrooms. We’re very lucky in Philadelphia, because we literally have thousands and thousands of people like them working in our schools every day. And we have to continue to ensure that teachers have the support that they need to continue to do the work that they’re doing and also to improve the work that they’re doing just like any profession where you’ve got opportunities to learn more, to increase your skills and to get better at your job. And so the first thing that I’m focused on — that we’re focused on collectively — is ensuring that the teachers have the supports that they need to do a good job, to get you to do a good job, and to do better.

The same thing is true of principals. We will have a truly successful system insofar as we have excellent principals in every single one of our buildings, and we plan to do that. Again, we’re very fortunate, because we have hundreds of excellent principals currently, and we have to help them continue to improve and provide them the opportunities to do that. When people decide to leave, we also have to be recruiting the very best and brightest. That’s part of our plan also, and then you think of the schools as the heart of the enterprise, and everything else that we do and everything in this building — everything in the central administration — you’ve got to have great people who are supporting the principals and teachers. I’m very focused on ensuring that we’ve got the right talent as well, and that’s both in terms of hiring and in terms of helping people get better at their job. The first thing that I’m focused on in improving the system is working to make sure we’ve got the right supports  in place to help our people to continue to get better to deliver the best possible services to the students and their families.

The second thing is that we’ve got to make sure that what we’re doing in the classroom is the right thing, so that’s the curriculum. We have embarked on a process to make sure we all agree on a system of very high, very clear standards that parents understand, that all of our teachers understand, because the curriculum that we’re using in our classrooms is vital to making sure that all students are learning to a very high degree, they’re learning what they need to learn in order to go on to be successful in whatever they choose to do once they leave high school, once they graduate from high school.

Then the last thing I would say that I’m very focused on is this idea of innovation because I think history has shown throughout the country that the school districts that we have and the way that they’ve run have not been as successful as they need to be. Certainly not in the 21st century. So we have to think differently about how we’re providing school and how we’re providing education to all students. So, for example, the idea of a kindergarten through 12th grade for an entire year even though some of those students might take longer to learn that material and some of those students might take a shorter amount of time to learn that material. So you could imagine a pathway through school that is not based on the amount of time you need to spend in a grade, but rather, is based on whether or not you’ve learned a comprehensive set of material.

So we have to think of doing things like that. We’ve got to think about the best use of the disruptive technology that’s available to us now. I don’t ever believe that technology is a solution to anything, I believe the people who are using the technology are the solution to whatever challenges we face. So thinking about it again from this lens of innovation, we want to make sure we’re making the best use of technology to help us to think about schools differently and to help us personalize each student’s education so you know what they know and what they need to know, you can actually provide individualized support for individual students and you can help them to succeed basically at their own pace.

Those are some of the things that we’re thinking about — a system that is more personalized, that is built more around the needs of individual students, and that’s less focused on a way of doing school that feels a little bit antiquated now.

You spoke about recruiting the best and the brightest, but we often hear that teachers are underpaid. And with budget constraints, that is a tough balance to have to strike. Do you find that it has been difficult to recruit the talent pool that you are aiming for or do these commentators not know what they are talking about?

PK: A couple of different answers to that question. The first is that I believe that in any profession where you want to recruit the best possible people, it is better if you can have flexibility in what you’re offering them as a salary. So I personally would love to be in a position where I could pay teachers more money if we felt as though it was going to help recruit the best people for the job. But I’ll also say that many people who go into teaching don’t value salary as the primary reason why they’re going in to the profession. Many people who go into teaching are mission-driven. Many people who go into teaching will say — and this is what research has shown — that they value the opportunity to learn and to grow as professionals above what an incremental salary might be. They value the quality of their principal and the quality of the leadership that they receive as being something that is more important for them than increases in salary.

And then what makes it a little bit more complicated is there are many people in the teaching profession who would rather see increases in salary that are based on performance rather than simple raises every year, and then you’ve got the final complicating factor of the real need to create some incentives to fill your hard-to-staff positions. So, for example, in many districts, like in Philadelphia, we find it more difficult to find special education teachers and particular kinds of special education teachers than we do others. So if we’re going to differentiate salary, should we possibly be doing it there?

There are a lot of complications to the question that you’ve asked, and the simple answer is that if we were in a position where we could increase everybody’s salary in order to show that we value them and in order to recruit the best and the brightest, I think we’d certainly be very open to that. At the same time, I know a lot of people don’t go into teaching because they want high salaries. They go in for many other reasons.

This interview was conducted in June 2013. As of August 17, 2013, the School District has announced that it will borrow $50 million from the city against future collections of its extra 1% sales tax. The School District plans on re-hiring 1,000 of the 3,859 staffers laid off in June 2013.

This interview contains minor edits for grammar and clarity.

This interview originally appeared in the Summer 2013 edition of PPR.

Image courtesy of http://www.phila.k12.pa.us/.

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