A member of the district's new leadership team, Chris Celmer, chief operation officer, is introduced. Harrisburg School District Receiver Janet C. Samuels introduces Harrisburg School District Financial Recovery Plan Service Director John J. George, July 2, 2019.
Over the past five years, the Reading school district has earned praise for improved academics and more stable finances under its current leadership team. Celmer hopes to be part of a similar turnaround in the Harrisburg School District, which is now under state oversight. The state Department of Education won approval to take over Harrisburg’s school system, mired in years of poor academic performance and financial woes.
Celmer joins John George, the director of Harrisburg’s financial recovery plan, as part of the district’s new leadership team. George, the executive director of the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit, helped stabilize the Reading school system and position it for its comeback.
The revival of the Reading School District offers instructive lessons for Harrisburg. In Reading, the school district found a dynamic superintendent, Dr. Khalid Mumin, who instilled pride and optimism in students and staff. Mumin and district leaders secured new contracts with staff, brought in qualified business pros to untangle the financial mess and persuaded teachers and staff to embrace changes.
Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, who delivered a scathing review of the district’s performance several years ago, has marveled at Reading’s resurgence.
“They still have challenges. I’m not saying they’re perfect,” DePasquale told PennLive last fall. “But the turnaround is unprecedented in my tenure as auditor general.”
Celmer said he wants Harrisburg families to understand a similar comeback is possible.
“If they look at the Reading School District, they can see change can happen,” said Celmer. “I want them to have hope.”
Here’s a closer look at the Reading school district’s turnaround and the seven lessons available for Harrisburg and other struggling school districts.
Dr. Khalid Mumin, superintendent of the Reading School District, has earned praise for the district’s improvement in recent years. Pa. Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said he hasn’t seen another turnaround as impressive.
1. Find the right leader
Since becoming the district’s superintendent five years ago, Mumin has earned widespread praise for his ability to connect with students, teachers and staff.
“He’s an incredibly engaging person,” DePasquale said. “He has a connection with the teachers and he has a connection with some of those kids that struggled.”
Mumin grew up in Philadelphia’s impoverished Logan neighborhood and had to repeat the 9th grade. But he developed a passion for learning. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Shippensburg University, a master’s degree at Penn State and eventually received his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania.
So he can speak authentically when he talks to students about the transformative power of an education.
Virtually all of Reading’s 18,000 students come from low-income households. One in four students don’t speak English as their first language. Latino students account for more than 80 percent of the student body.
Mumin speaks admiringly of the resilience of some recent graduates. One student came home to find that her mother had left; the student took a job at McDonald’s and found a friend to take her in. Another had a baby and was kicked out of her house. She persisted, earned a diploma and went to nursing school.
“The stories are inspiring,” Mumin said. “These are kids with a multitude of issues, including homelessness. To see these kids graduate is awesome. They get the chance be the author of their own story.”
Mumin is in the midst of a five-year contract that runs through 2023. Two years ago, he was a candidate to be the superintendent of the Omaha school system but ultimately withdrew his name from consideration. School district officials and community members expressed relief that Mumin was staying in Reading.
“He’s been phenomenal for the Reading school district,” Celmer said of Mumin. “His enthusiasm and his connection with the students is amazing. He took the baton from Dr. George and ran with it.”
Mumin has held events to celebrate the beginning of the school year for teachers and staff. The opening day pep rallies have taken at the Reading Fightin Phils ballpark and the Doubletree by Hilton hotel in downtown Reading.
“More than anything for the community and the students, he has been an inspiration,” said state Sen. Judy Schwank, a Berks County Democrat. “He has inspired them that we can do better.”
2. Settle contracts
When Mumin began his tenure as superintendent in 2014, the Reading school district had expired contracts with eight different union groups.
“None of our bargaining units had contracts,” Mumin said. The teachers had been working without a contract for two years.
Mumin and the leadership team began negotiations with the unions. As the first contracts were signed, it sent a message to other unions that administrators were serious about taking care of staff.
“It was almost like a snowball reaction,” Mumin said. “That boosted morale.”
“As we started to settle agreements after year one, midway through year two, I really started to get a sense that the tide was turning. There was change. People were really believing in what we were doing,” Mumin said.
In 2016, the school board and teachers’ union agreed on a contract, giving teachers their first pact in four years. The Reading school board is now in talks with a new contract for the teachers; their current deal expires at the end of August. More talks are taking place this month but Mumin and Celmer said relations with the district’s teachers are far better.
“It’s nothing like it was five years ago,” Mumin said.
Reading has seen much less teacher turnover than Harrisburg. In the 2017-18 school year, 6 percent of Reading’s teachers left for other jobs. By contrast, the turnover rate in Harrisburg was 18 percent, the worst in the state.
Reading is one of America’s poorest cities. School officials acknowledge the daunting challenge of helping kids succeed in the classroom when so many children have a difficult life outside it.
Still, state assessment tests show many of Reading’s students are rising to the challenge.
According to state Department of Education data, 55 percent of Reading’s high school students performed at grade level. It’s below the statewide average of 63 percent but far ahead of Harrisburg High School, where 16 percent of students scored at grade level in English.
In math, about 40 percent of Reading’s students were at grade level, which is in striking distance of the statewide average of 45 percent. By comparison, only 8 percent of Harrisburg High School students performed at grade level in math. (In Harrisburg’s SciTech High, roughly 75 percent of students were at grade level in English and math; Reading doesn’t have an equivalent school to SciTech).
Harrisburg faces the challenge of educating children from low-income families; about 82 percent of Harrisburg’s high school students are considered economically disadvantaged. But in Reading High, 98 percent of the kid’s students are economically disadvantaged, according to state figures.
In May, more than 760 students graduated from Reading High School, its largest graduating class in five years. More than 100 are obtaining diplomas after summer courses. Mumin said the four-year graduation rate in Reading has reached 73 percent, “which is phenomenal for an urban district.”
“The most satisfying gains have been happening at the high school level,” Mumin said. “Overall district-wide, I’m excited about the trends in academic growth.”
Reading administrators acknowledge they have plenty of work to do. But they are showing progress despite the fact that virtually all of the district’s children come from families with low incomes.
Mumin said it’s critical for teachers and staff to have a head-heart connection and to understand the challenging circumstances of the district’s children. Mumin said he has worked to help kids understand the value of staying in school to have a chance at a better life.
“Convincing them education is the key, the first key, and a prerequisite to get out of poverty,” Mumin said.
“You’ve got to emphasize that,” he said. “You want to change your conditions? Education can help you do that. Education can lead to a good job. And that can change everything for you and your family.”
The district has reorganized the schools to address overcrowding. Reading now operates five middle schools for grades 5-8 and has moved the 9th grade students into the high school. The elementary schools now serve kids in kindergarten through 4th grade.
Mumin said the moves will enable the district to boost academic performance and manage enrollment.
4. Get backing of the board
Several years ago, Reading school board meetings displayed behavior that would merit detentions for students. Board meetings were marked by shouting matches and antagonism.
With turnover on the board a few years ago, the drama subsided. Board members have shown trust in the district’s leadership and have forged a good relationship with administrators and staff.
Mumin noted that the board voted unanimously – with a 9-0 vote – to name him superintendent.
“That was a message sent to the community that this board is on the same page,” Mumin said.
He has described the school board as “extremely professional.” He said the board has had intense conversations on key issues but they’ve been civil and are focused on the district’s students.
Mumin cited the school board’s support in addressing a persistent problem area for the district: special education. For years, the Reading school district was sued repeatedly over failures in serving its special education students. In 2017, the board agreed to tap the Chester County Intermediate Unit to run the district’s special education programs.
The move has paid dividends, Mumin said. He said there has been better communication with parents on education plans for their kids.
5. Manage money wisely
The district now manages its money much more efficiently, a key component in Reading’s turnaround.
The auditor general last year lavished praise on Reading’s smarter financial management. Reading has come a long way from a previous state audit in 2013, which DePasquale said revealed “a horror show.”
“It was clear five years ago that no one was accountable to anyone for managing the district,” DePasquale said last fall. “The business offices here were like a ghost town; the operation is completely different now.”
Schwank, whose senate district includes the city of Reading, recalls a meeting with the school system’s overwhelmed business staff years before the current team took over. She asked school staff what help they needed and was astonished by the response.
“I’ll never forget it,” she said. “We asked about what you need in terms of financial resources. They brought out adding machine tapes. Not spreadsheets, or even an audit report. They brought out adding machine tapes to talk about where they were. That pushed me back in my chair a bit.”
The district’s financial team uncovered errors in payments to the Public School Employee Retirement System. The result: the retirement system made a one-time payment of $4 million to the Reading school district. The pension system also boosted its annual reimbursement by $800,000.
In addition, the Reading school district received approval to use federal money in different ways, which helped kickstart an effort to improve the district’s technology.
The district refinanced its debt, saving $11.7 million over three years, DePasquale’s 2018 audit found.
Mumin credits the meticulous work of the district’s chief financial officer, Wayne Gehris. With more efficient money management, the district can focus more on educating the kids.
“When your books are balanced, it gives you the financial stability and coin in hand to make a difference,” Mumin said.
6. Rally the community
The Reading School District has focused on building and improving relationships in the community in recent years.
The district has partnerships with the five colleges based in Berks County. Alvernia University has offered full scholarships to qualifying Reading High School graduates. Volunteers from Albright College have worked in Reading’s elementary schools. Penn State Berks offers the chance for high school students to visit the campus for a program, “Be a Penn Stater for a Day,” designed to give kids a taste of college life.
In addition, Visions Credit Union opened a branch in Reading High School. The credit union also helped assist with branding efforts and added lighting to the entrance of the high school.
“People want to partner with us now,” Celmer said. “In 2014 that was not the case.”
7. Change mindset
As much as anything, Mumin said he worked to rally teachers and staff who felt dispirited or defeated.
In Reading, he spelled out his vision for changes and worked to get people to buy into it. He said he didn’t tell staff it was his way or the highway.
Mumin said he and other administrators spent time listening to the staff and teachers.
“You get people to buy into the struggle,” Mumin said. “You’re just not standing in front of a group of stakeholders; you’re walking alongside these stakeholders marching toward success.”
He’s also worked to boost pride in the Reading school system. The district’s social media team celebrates student accomplishments on Twitter and Instagram.
The Reading school district Twitter feed showed images of graduating high school seniors touring the district’s elementary schools. School leaders want the youngest students – and the entire community – to see the seniors in their caps and gowns and understand what’s possible.
“It’s very strategic and intentional,” Mumin said. “Teachers are able to talk about what’s going on in their classroom. Parents feel invested and proud that their kids are recognized for doing something great.”
As much as anything, Mumin touts the virtues of unrelenting optimism, even in dire circumstances.
“You have to be a realist and an optimist at the same time,” Mumin said. “When you have forces that believe you can’t do it, you have to have a sense of pride. You have to go in there with some confidence that almost seems sensationalized.”
Mumin recalled a challenging day in his first trying year with the district. Some staff noticed storm clouds out the window. Mumin told Celmer and other staffers that like the incoming storm, a dark cloud is approaching the Reading School District.
But the cloud would eventually move away and better, brighter days were on the way, he said, if they worked hard and stuck together.
“The cloud moved over us,” Mumin said. “And now all of this opportunity is here.”
The auditor general’s review of the Reading School District