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School culture deemed priority for next PPS superintendent Hamlet

| Friday, May 27, 2016, 12:12 a.m.
Incoming Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Hamlet addresses the media during a news conference Wednesday, May 18, 2016, in Oakland.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Incoming Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Hamlet addresses the media during a news conference Wednesday, May 18, 2016, in Oakland.

Anthony Hamlet knows no two students are alike, and that they come from different backgrounds and learn in different ways.

Hamlet was raised by a single mother in Delray Beach, Fla., and met his father only a few times during his formative years, he said.

The incoming superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools, Hamlet said he thinks schools need to “loosen the reins” and create more personalized learning plans that accommodate each child's circumstances, abilities and passions.

“I'm not stuck to one ideology,” he said. “It could be a hodgepodge of things — just find out what works for children and engages them and makes them passionate about their education.”

Hamlet, 46, will replace Linda Lane as Pittsburgh schools superintendent when she retires in June. A district administrator with the School District of Palm Beach County in Florida, Hamlet will move to Pittsburgh in a few weeks and serve as a consultant for the district here before taking the top job July 1.

He is assuming control of the urban school district at a time when educators nationwide are working to close the achievement gap between black and white students, improve disciplinary practices and boost student performance.

“I think the work called me,” said Hamlet, who was officially hired by the Pittsburgh board last week.

He declined to say specifically what his first actions will be until he becomes superintendent, but Hamlet said his priorities include reducing what he called exclusionary discipline practices like suspensions and expulsions and providing teachers with the tools and collaboration they need to be successful.

Taking those measures will help improve the culture in each school, which will help students and teachers perform better, he said.

“There needs to be a paradigm shift between how we deal with our students and our faculty,” Hamlet said.

In Pittsburgh in 2013-14, a black student was four times as likely as a white student to be suspended. About 53 percent of the district's 25,000 students are black.

Last year, white elementary school students scored 34 percentage points higher than black students in reading and 35 points higher in math on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests. White high school students scored 27 percentage points higher than blacks in literature and 33 points higher in algebra.

Thanks to his predecessors, Pittsburgh schools are in good financial shape with a fund balance of about $129 million, said Carey Harris, executive director of A+ Schools, an advocacy and watchdog group that monitors the district. But there are still a number of schools in the district that aren't performing as well as they could, and the achievement gap is sizeable.

“I think this new superintendent really needs to have some vision for what we're going to do for those kids and how we're going to have way-better options for them,” Harris said.

Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, praised Hamlet's commitment to improving school culture.

Teachers are eager to get more support in the classroom, she said. She wants Hamlet to be a strong advocate for the district in Harrisburg and rally the community to support its schools.

“There's so much going on that we need to talk about,” she said.

Hamlet this year was a member of the first group of educators to complete the Urban Superintendents Academy, a certification program offered by the School Superintendents Association and Howard University. The 10-month program helps prepare administrators for the issues urban districts typically face: increased poverty rates, a greater percentage of students who don't speak English and fewer economic resources, said Morton Sherman, the association's associate executive director.

“I am so tickled for Pittsburgh because I think you're getting one of our rising leaders in the country,” Sherman said. “He has these values of serving these kids, bringing people together and being accountable.”

Hamlet started his career as a NFL defensive lineman for the Seattle Seahawks and the Indianapolis Colts. He did not play in a regular-season game, and a knee injury forced him to pursue a new dream.

“I always tell kids if they get a chance to play sports on an athletic scholarship, make sure you get your education because that's what it's about,” he said.

He made sure that message got through to his 17-year-old son, who will be attending Northwood University's campus in Midland, Mich., next year. In addition to playing football and running track, Hamlet said his son will study business.

After leaving football behind, Hamlet moved back to Florida, where he got a job as a high school teacher. He was in the classroom four years before he was promoted to assistant principal. Over the next 16 years, he served as an assistant principal and principal at two high schools, a magnet middle school and two alternative schools.

Most recently, Hamlet was the director of school accountability transformation for the Palm Beach County school district — the 11th-largest district in the country with about 183,000 students — where he oversaw troubled schools, maintained a $128 million budget and acted as a district liaison with the Florida Department of Education.

“One thing holds true,” Hamlet said. “The way you treat your students, the way you treat your staff — makes the difference.”

Elizabeth Behrman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7886 or Lbehrman@tribweb.com.

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