New Pittsburgh City Schools superintendent: Turning things around his hallmark

May 29, 2016 by

PALM BEACH, Fla. — The new superintendent of the Pittsburgh Public Schools has spent most of his career in a sprawling, diverse district in South Florida, where he has staked a claim on turning around troubled schools.

Anthony Hamlet, a director in the Palm Beach County school system’s “transformation” office, which focused on closing the achievement gap in some of its most academically struggling schools, will begin his work in Pittsburgh Wednesday. He’ll start a monthlong consulting contract for “transition and planning activities,” overlapping with outgoing schools chief Linda Lane, whose contract ends June 30. Over this summer, he and the board will draw up a strategic plan, mapping out goals for the district and specifying what the new top administrator is expected to achieve.

In an interview here last week, Mr. Hamlet emphasized a desire to stay in Pittsburgh beyond the three years that the Council of the Great City Schools found is the average tenure for an urban superintendent.

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“Like I told the school board, I want this to be my first superintendency and my last.”

Rich and poor

The Palm Beach County school system covers more than 2,300 square miles and includes 183,000 students representing just shy of 200 countries and territories. Well-off areas like Palm Beach island and Wellington share the boundary with Belle Glade, an impoverished town near Lake Okeechobee at the end of a long highway flanked by fields of sugar cane. Pittsburgh Public has about 25,000 students representing nearly 60 countries.

“We’ve got the richest of the rich, and the poorest of the poor,” said Kathi Gundlach, president of Palm Beach County Classroom Teachers Association.

Mr. Hamlet, 46, grew up in this district and graduated from high school in 1987. He started at the University of Miami that fall, playing defensive end for the Hurricanes.

In an interview, Mr. Hamlet said he saw his father, who was incarcerated for years, only twice during his childhood. When they reconnected years later, his father told him he’d heard his son’s name announced during an Orange Bowl broadcast — from within a Miami jail.

“He remembers himself being in jail and telling his friends, ‘That’s my son.’ … People would say, ‘Yeah, right.’ He didn’t have any pictures because he was never around me,” Mr. Hamlet said. “Sometimes I think I’m the person I am because I grew up the way I did.”

Mr. Hamlet was drafted by the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks after college, but sustained a knee injury at the end of training camp, forcing a return to Florida for surgery. Knowing he always wanted to work with kids, he said, he got a job at a group home in Palm Beach County while recovering. In early 1993, he signed with the Indianapolis Colts, but shorty before the start of regular season, he hurt his knee again, and the team released him after roughly four weeks on the injured reserve list.

He then started working at an alternative school in Palm Beach County, but left for a shot with the Canadian Football League’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers, calling it in his 1994 resignation letter a “lifelong dream” to play professional football. After six months, and another stint on injured reserve, he came home.

“I thought maybe this is not for me, so let me go back and do some things I’ve been successful at and start teaching again,” he said.

Mr. Hamlet has worked as a behavior specialist, teacher, coach, vice and assistant high school principal. He was principal at an alternative education school, an international baccalaureate middle school, and mostly recently at Palm Beach Lakes High, one of the district’s lowest-performing schools where suspensions were significantly reduced during his tenure.

In 2003, he earned a master’s in education from Nova Southeastern University, then a doctorate in educational leadership from that Ft. Lauderdale school in 2007.

Since October 2014, the transformation team Mr. Hamlet helped to direct, has worked with 25 to 30 schools assessing their “culture, systems and instruction” and to make sure each “improvement plan” is geared toward their school’s needs, he said. Brian Perkins, the consultant working to replace Mrs. Lane, likened the role to that of assistant superintendent in Pittsburgh, citing the number of schools Mr. Hamlet handled and his level of responsibility.

“We drill down and find out what the root cause is and [move] away the barrier,” Mr. Hamlet said. “It’s about capacity-building. We don’t go in and tell you what to do. We sit side-by-side with you. … When we leave, you don’t need our support anymore.”

A Palm Beach County schools spokeswoman said the deputy superintendents to whom Mr. Hamlet reported were unavailable for an interview. The transformation office is set to close July 1 as part of a district reorganization.

Recently Mr. Hamlet was named Palm Beach’s director of recruitment and retention as part of the district reorganization.

Seeking a higher position

Mr. Hamlet said he was seeking a higher-ranking school position and enrolled last year in the Urban Superintendents Academy, a certificate program from which he just graduated. But he hadn’t considered Pittsburgh until he learned he’d been recommended to Mr. Perkins.

The nine-member school board on May 18 voted unanimously to hire him on a five-year contract with a starting salary of $210,000. The Post-Gazette requested a copy of the agreement, but Mr. Perkins did not send it.

“I think I was a unique fit for what they wanted,” Mr. Hamlet said, emphasizing his varied experience, record of reducing school suspensions and the efforts started on his watch, including restorative justice practices and a “social justice partnership.”

Mr. Hamlet was key in helping to implement that multi-agency initiative to keep Palm Beach Lakes High students “in school and away from the courts,” said Kathleen Kroll, an administrative judge in the Juvenile Division in Florida’s 15th Judicial Court. He was principal there from August 2011 to June 2014.

However, some of the data Mr. Hamlet cited in his resume contained discrepancies.

For example, his resume stated that Lakes and JFK Middle “moved from ‘F’ to ‘C’ ” during his tenure as principal. But state education data shows both were “C” schools the year before he started and during his time there. JFK had been a steady “D” for several years until he arrived. Mr. Hamlet said the “F” to “C” in his resume referred specifically to academics at those schools, but he did not explain how he arrived at that grade.

In addition, Lakes’ federal graduation rate was 63.4 percent the year before Mr. Hamlet arrived, and 67.7 percent for 2013-14, but his resume says the school “went from 59 percent to 72 percent.” Mr. Hamlet said the federal rate is based on a strict, four-year cohort and that Palm Beach County allows struggling students the summer to finish their schooling. But he did not provide a data set to explain how he arrived those figures.

The consultant, Mr. Perkins, said spot-checking resumes isn’t standard practice and noted that his firm talked to references who he said confirmed that schools under Mr. Hamlet’s leadership had moved from failing to C-level.

School board president Regina Holley didn’t respond to a request for comment on the resume.

Humble and visible

Observers described Mr. Hamlet as humble and visible, the sort of leader who would help direct traffic in the rain, hang around after class to chat with students, and loop teachers and coaches into conversations they weren’t privy to before.

“He is the best principal I’ve ever worked for,” said Lakes library media specialist Jill Saracino. “He just respects the expert you are in your field.”

When Mr. Hamlet arrived at Lakes, Debra Robinson, a 16-year school board member, observed the kind of culture change he has called among the hallmarks of his turnaround efforts. For one, she said, kids weren’t wandering the halls between class.

“It’s the only school I’ve ever been to where it made me wonder, ‘Is it the weekend?’ ” said Dr. Robinson, a physician, who also was one Mr. Hamlet’s references for the position. ”Having been on the campus so many times — it was like night and day.”

A native of Bermuda, Gina Spence had sent her daughter, Isis, only to private or charter schools when they emigrated to the United States and was “mortified to say the least” at the prospect of her attending Lakes. But she agreed to meet with Mr. Hamlet, who changed her mind.

“There was no ca­joling,” said Ms. Spence, who also was on the Stu­dent Ad­vi­sory Coun­cil. “[He said], ‘If you are here to have your daugh­ter ed­u­cated, then that’s what we’re go­ing to do.’ ”

Isis is heading to Spelman College this fall.

Mr. Hamlet is also the parent of a recent graduate. His son, Austin, who attended Palm Beach Lakes, will play football at Northwood University in Midland, Mich. Austin, who is 17, lives with Mr. Hamlet, who is unmarried, but Mr. Hamlet said his son was raised by both he and the boy’s mother.

Source: New Pittsburgh City Schools superintendent: Turning things around his hallmark | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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