The 2016-17 school year is set to begin for Pittsburgh Public Schools next week after a tumultuous summer capped by the controversial hiring of new Superintendent Anthony Hamlet, who fielded questions for weeks over whether he plagiarized and misrepresented portions of the resume he used to earn the district's top job. The board voted to retain him in June.
Hamlet announced a new 90-day transition plan earlier this month, including a series of nine district-wide community forums.
He discussed his strategy with 90.5 WESA’s Paul Guggenheimer on Friday. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
PAUL GUGGENHEIMER: Part of your plan includes a commitment to hear what students have to say, what teachers have to say about the direction of the district. Why is that important to you?
ANTHONY HAMLET: We want to make sure that we capture the voices. That everybody has buy-in and ownership. When people are given initiatives from the top down, I don’t think that they take hold because the ownership is not with the organization or the individuals that they need to inspire. When they come to self-actualization about why something needs to be changed, why they need certain models of inquiry, why they need certain pedagogy skill sets changes, why they need a certain curriculum deep dive and look at the alignment of it. Then, they understand why things need to change or some things you need to keep because they’re working. Or some things you need to let go because they’re not working.
GUGGENHEIMER: So if changes need to be made, it will be the result, to some extent, of what students want to see done differently and what teachers and perhaps others want to see done differently.
HAMLET: It’s going to be a smattering of all our voices because everybody’s going to have voice and input in the forums again. At the public forums we want everyone to come but we’ll have separate forums for students also and capture some things that they want and hear their voice really from a standpoint of no adults around, here are just the kids and we’re having a conversation. “Hey guys, what’s going on? What’s really going on? Have a conversation with me.”
GUGGENHEIMER: What would you say are the biggest challenges that the public schools in Pittsburgh face?
HAMLET: I think the biggest challenges right now are making sure we have appropriate programming for all of our students. I’ve been in education a long time now, about twenty-two years and looking at how things work pretty much in a majority of districts, this is what happens: districts always focus on the lower 25%, the kids that always need support. But also paying attention to the kids that are at the top because they’re the top performers so they get all the awards and all the accolades. But what about the kids in the middle? So, making sure we have appropriate programming for all levels of our children and actually paying attention to all groups of students so they can have appropriate programming as they move through the different academic levels. So, making sure we have that programming in place for all of our children. I think that’s going to be our biggest challenge.
GUGGENHEIMER: One of the things that I’ve heard teachers say and perhaps you have as well, is that they spend too much of their time trying to get classrooms and kids, who are acting out, under control and not enough time teaching. What should be done to address this?
HAMLET: First of all we need to have an understanding of what systems we have in place to support children and have conversations about why students are acting out. Sometimes children come from homes with different life circumstances and different things that happen so there could be numerous reasons why kids act out. So, we’ve got to make sure we have those support structures in place, realizing that adults come with certain skill set deficits, making sure they get the appropriate training to support kids that act out as well. But also having wraparound services, social and emotional counseling for those kids who need that as well.
GUGGENHEIMER: You’ve talked about developing a five-year strategic plan to quote: “make this district one of the best in the nation. If the district is as cash strapped as we’re hearing, how can you address the problems that currently exist with facilities and programs, let alone do what it takes to make the Pittsburgh Public Schools district one of the best in the nation?
HAMLET: I’m one for flattening the system, per se. Before, the executive cabinet didn’t have the assistant superintendents on the executive cabinet. For me, it’s about schools. And the conversation should always be around schools and the assistant superintendents represent the voice of the schools because they have schools on their network. So, bringing them into the conversation because, again for me, the conversation should be about schools on a regular basis. That’s what we’re in business for in the school district.
GUGGENHEIMER: In June following revelations that you had plagiarized a portion of a Washington Post editorial for your resume and embellished accomplishments on your resume, the board hired a former state prosecutor to conduct an independent inquiry into your background. Do you feel you have sufficiently answered questions about your credentials?
HAMLET: That will be something for the investigator because for me, twenty-two years in Florida (I) didn’t have a problem whatsoever. I come here and I have a problem. So, for me, I don’t have a problem. I have the same resume as I had in Florida as I have here.
GUGGENHEIMER: As you look back, what might you have done differently?
GUGGENHEIMER: As you know, plagiarism is in the student code of conduct. What happens if a kid is caught plagiarizing and he says to his teacher, “Well, Dr. Hamlet did it.” How should a teacher address that?
HAMLET: We’ve got to find a definition of plagiarism. And I’m sure you know this, plagiarism is knowingly and intentionally doing something such as submitting a paper, submitting a publication or assignment, or taking someone’s own information and presenting it as your own. Right? Dr. Hamlet didn’t do that.
GUGGENHEIMER: How would you characterize what you did?
HAMLET: Again, we’re talking about Pittsburgh Public Schools right now. That’s in the past. The focus right now is on the children of Pittsburgh Public Schools.