Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Harrisburg School Board votes to consider a new superintendent.

Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney speaks at a district press conference in December 2017.

The Harrisburg School District is putting up a help wanted sign, but there won’t necessarily be a personnel change in its highest office.

In a 5-4 vote tonight, the Harrisburg School Board decided to accept applications for the position of superintendent. The vote means that if sitting superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney wishes to stay in her post, she must apply for her position and beat out other candidates.

The vote came after more than an hour of spirited public comments, as near-equal numbers of district residents encouraged the board to vote for or against a resolution to initiate the hiring process.

Residents who supported renewing Knight-Burney’s contract emphasized the importance of consistent leadership during the district’s recovery process. Those who called for an open hiring process said that the district deserved to consider candidates who might make more dramatic gains in student achievement.

Knight-Burney has been Harrisburg’s superintendent since 2011. Since 2013, she’s been responsible for implementing the actions in a state-crafted recovery plan, which outlined almost 100 initiatives to improve the district’s academics and operations.

Harrisburg schools are perennially plagued by low test scores, high personnel turnover, and expenses that outpace revenues. The district has had pockets of success–test scores at Marshall Math and Science Academy and Harrisburg High School’s SciTech Campus far outpace other schools in the district. But most campuses have failed to meet academic targets set in the district’s 2011 recovery plan.

District data show that Harrisburg’s five elementary schools had an average of 20 percent ELA proficiency among third graders in 2017. That figure, which is based on data from the PSSA standardized tests, did not exceed 23 percent for grades 5 to 8.

Proficiency rates are even lower for math. Across the district, fewer than 18 percent of students were considered proficient in the subject in 2017. The district recorded zero-percent proficiency for seventh grade students at Camp Curtin Academy and eighth grade students at Rowland Academy.

The district has also struggled with high rates of chronic absenteeism, which TheBurg reported in February can undermine even the most effective teaching.

In a presentation tonight before the board, Knight-Burney pointed to student growth data as evidence of the district’s improvement. Growth data measure how much students progress during an academic year, whereas test scores measure what they know at a given point in time.

Knight-Burney said that test scores are unreliable performance indicators, which is an argument that’s gaining traction in the education community. Since test scores are tightly correlated with family income, they often offer a dire picture of high-poverty districts like Harrisburg, where 85 percent of students are from low-income households. Growth is becoming the new standard for educational success.

“Growth is about how fast and how much kids are learning,” Knight-Burney said. “Our students are growing and have the potential to be high achievement.”

Data show that Knight-Burney isn’t wrong. TheBurg reported in February that Pennsylvania’s new method for evaluating school success will focus on growth rates rather than test scores. That could drastically alter how Harrisburg ranks in statewide school assessments. Whereas the district’s test scores are perennially among the worst in the state, its growth rate is only slightly below average.

Data show that Harrisburg students progress by an average of 4.2 years during five years of schooling. That means they learn at a rate that’s equal to or faster than students in wealthier districts nearby, even though their test scores are consistently much lower.

“Many kids come to school three to four years behind grade level, so there’s lots of work that we have to do,” Knight-Burney said. “When we’re comparing ourselves to other districts, it’s not fair.”

While making her case before the board, Knight-Burney also touted the development of a district-wide curriculum, a Teacher Leadership Academy and new extracurricular activities as successes of her seven-year tenure.

Nonetheless, the superintendent’s pitch didn’t convince all board members that she deserved another term. Faced with a four-to-four vote among his fellow directors, board newcomer Tyrell Spradley cast the tie-breaker to initiate the hiring process. He expressed confidence that Knight-Burney would stand out among other candidates.

“I’d put my superintendent against anyone else who came in,” Spradley said. “I know she’d succeed.”

Spradley joined board directors Carrie Fowler, Percel Eiland, Brian Carter and board president Judd Pittman in voting for the resolution to start a hiring process. Board directors Melvin Wilson, Ellis Roy, Lionel Gonzalez and board vice president Danielle Robinson voted against it.

After Spradley’s deciding vote, it became clear that board members did not agree on what the resolution meant. Robinson and Wilson visibly reproached Spradley for his vote, implying he had cost the superintendent her job.

“It means she’s gone,” Robinson said to Spradley.

School solicitor Samuel Cooper had to intervene to clarify that the vote did not preclude Knight-Burney from serving another term.

“What you chose in your vote is to open up the office for a search for superintendent, and she has the ability to apply,” Cooper said.

After the clarification, Spradley reiterated his belief that Knight-Burney would defend her post from competitors.

“You don’t know that,” Wilson told him.

The board considered the resolution tonight because it is required to give Knight-Burney 60 days notice if it chooses not to renew her contract. The resolution was also on the agenda in December, January and February, though it was tabled by a board vote each time.

Knight-Burney previously beat out competition to become Harrisburg’s superintendent. She was selected from a pool of applicants by the school board in 2011. Her current contract, which was renewed in 2014, expires on June 30.

Asked after tonight’s meeting if she would reapply for her job, Knight-Burney declined to comment.

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