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Philadelphia's "Servant-Leader" Superintendent

William Hite Jr. is ready for new urban challenges
Hite with Philly kids walk to school
On the first day of school, William Hite, Jr., accompanied students to the Amy NW Middle School, Academy for Middle Years.

When William Hite Jr. introduced himself as a candidate for superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia in a community meeting earlier this year, he read from a list of student concerns he had jotted down on a slip of paper. For example, one student observed that there were more police officers than counselors in some schools, and another wished that teachers would find new ways to teach and find ways to engage more students.

Hite, a longtime educator and administrator, who began his career more than two decades ago as a high school athletic coach, says his biggest passion is educating young people. And one of the best ways to serve students, he says, is by listening. “A lot of the information we get about our students is filtered through the lenses of teachers, principals and, in some cases, parents,” he says. “I therefore make it a point to talk with students directly and meet with them regularly. Our students have great ideas, and if we would listen to their ideas, we could come up with better ways to serve them. Some of my best ideas come from students.”

Hite, 51, assumed his duties as Philadelphia’s new superintendent on September 17, officially becoming leader of the country’s eighth largest school district. An urban district of more than 146,000 students, Philadelphia faces significant challenges, including high poverty rates and low-performing schools, that are compounded by a projected budget deficit up to $282 million. Hite is also facing alleged cheating on standardized tests in some schools in previous years. Although he couldn’t give details, he says he plans to put controls in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

But as the former superintendent of Prince George’s County (Md.) Public Schools, an urban district with similar problems, Hite says he’s ready for the challenge. “Across Philadelphia there is a passion for improving the educational environment for all students, and that was exciting for me to see at a time where we have to do things differently in tough budget situations,” he says. “The city is in a unique position to transform itself, and I believe we can change.”

Continuing Struggles

Philadelphia has long faced academic and financial struggles as a large and diverse school system where more than 80 percent of students are socioeconomically disadvantaged. In fact, in 2001, Pennsylvania took control of the district’s failing schools and installed a five-member School Reform Commission (SRC) as a management team. However, in spite of state oversight, the district continued to struggle financially, and by 2011, the budget gap ballooned to more than $700 million. Tension among district administrators flared in August 2011, when previous superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman departed after a controversial three-year tenure, marred by criticism over her leadership style, a massive hole in the district’s budget and disputes with the teachers’ union. Her contract was reportedly bought out for more than $900,000.

Hite with Camp kidsAccording to “Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools,” a district report released in August, the district managed to close much of the budget gap, but still faces a deficit as high as $282 million for the 2012-2013 school year and a cumulative deficit of more than $1.1 billion over the next five years. The district has also been hit hard by a more than 20 percent drop in enrollment, from 193,000 in 2003 to about 152,000 this year, according to the report. At the same time, charter school enrollment increased by more than 150 percent, leaving the district to foot the bill for buildings with empty seats.

The city’s 80 charter schools now serve roughly a quarter of the area’s public school children, and district estimates project that the charter system will grow to encompass 40 percent of all public school students within the next five years. Still, the district’s scores in reading and math are below national, state and urban district averages and its four-year graduation rate was 61 percent for the class of 2011.

Searching for a Superintendent

With the sudden departure of Ackerman, the SRC launched a search for a new leader last January with the aid of a special search team that included parents and community leaders. SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos says the goal was to find an innovative superintendent who could help Philadelphia transform from a struggling district to a model urban school system. In particular, they wanted a superintendent who would engage students, families and stakeholders; was committed to transparency and openness; and would respect the district’s diversity.

The district received more than 100 applications and the candidates were eventually narrowed down to two: Hite and Pedro Martinez, then deputy-superintendent in the Clark County School District in Clark County, Nevada, which serves Las Vegas. However Martinez dropped out of the running after he accepted the position as superintendent of the Washoe County School District, Nevada’s second largest school district.

Ramos says Hite was ultimately chosen because of his confidence, experience and collaborative leadership style.

The search team was impressed when Hite referred to himself as a “servant leader,” a strong leader with the ability to listen, communicate and hold others accountable. “Bill is a great communicator,” Ramos says. “He has a way of communicating clearly without oversimplifying.”

Hite at Ed ExtravaganzaRamos also says that the search team was impressed with Hite’s experience. “He managed large budget gaps of his own in Prince George’s County and balanced that budget while improving student performance,” Ramos says. “At the end of the process, we felt that Bill was a good fit for Philadelphia and we were a good fit for him.” Hite was officially announced as the new superintendent on June 29, and under a five-year contract, will be paid an annual salary of $300,000.

Preparing for Challenges

Born in Richmond, Va., to a father who was a transit company employee and a mother who was a department store clerk, Hite was the first in his family to attend college. He played football at Virginia Tech, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in education, and went on to earn his master’s degree from the University of Virginia and a doctorate at Virginia Tech. An avid reader and Virginia Tech football fan, Hite, the father of two daughters whose wife Deirdre Francis-Hite is an administrator at Georgetown University, recently became a grandfather. Hite also enjoys music and traveling, but says his new job will likely leave him with little free time. “The budget situation will definitely be keeping me up at night,” he predicted.

Hite says that he first discovered his love of education when he started his career as a softball, football, and wrestling coach at John Randolph Tucker High School in Richmond.

He went on to serve as a middle and high school principal and eventually as director of middle school instruction for the Henrico County (Va.) Public School System. He worked as deputy superintendent in Cobb County (Ga.) School District in Atlanta before joining Prince George’s County in 2006 as an assistant superintendent. Prince George’s County is Maryland’s second largest school district with 135,000 students, and is a predominantly poor district in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. with challenges similar to Philadelphia.

When Hite took over as superintendent at Prince George’s in 2009, he slashed $150 million from the district’s budget each year for three consecutive years, froze salaries, cut 1,300 positions and ordered furloughs. But Hite also managed to maintain a good working relationship with the district teachers’ union, the Prince George’s County Education Association (PGCEA), despite the significant cuts.

In a media statement, PGCEA president Kenneth B. Haines said the union enjoyed a collaborative relationship with Hite and was saddened to see him leave. “The board of education, Dr. Hite’s executive staff, and the PGCEA leadership team worked hard to place student achievement at the center of every debate,” he said. In his time at Prince George’s County, Hite beefed up support for the district’s lowest-performing schools and improved staff development for teachers and principals through a partnership with the University of Pittsburgh. Hite also claimed that district students showed significant academic gains in spite of the budget cuts.

Closing Schools

Given the magnitude of Philadelphia’s financial crisis, Hite says he will no doubt have to make difficult decisions. Hite plans to start by listening to his staff, students and the community.“It’s important to understand what has been tried in the past. Not only what has failed, but also what has been successful and the reasons for that,” Hite explains. “There needs to be a comprehensive understanding of the plans we have in place right now and the expected outcomes of those plans.”

Hite in classNonetheless, Hite says Philadelphia, like school districts across the country, will have to operate more efficiently and effectively under the weight of state and federal funding cuts, and made it clear that some schools will close under his watch. Faced with the steep decline in enrollment, the school district is considering closing more than 60 schools in the coming years.

“We have large buildings with fewer than 200 students in some high schools and that’s pretty significant,” he says. “Closing schools is never popular, but to move more money into classrooms, you have to be more efficient in how you use all of the resources available.”

Hite says some of the lowest-performing schools could also close. In Prince George’s County, he helped to turn around six under-performing schools and closed eight others. “I would like to think that every school a child attends is of the highest quality,” he says, “and have no problem addressing schools that are not serving students.”

But Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the district’s teachers union, is concerned over Hite’s plans to close schools. He says the district has been ravaged by massive budget cuts and about 3,000 layoffs in the past year. “We’re already cutting to the bone, I just don’t see where we can cut anymore,” Jordan says, adding that closures will likely be met with backlash from teachers, parents and the community.

Jordan, however, says he’s hopeful that Hite, with his reputation as a listener, can work to restore confidence in a community disheartened over the district’s financial mismanagement.

As for other plans, Hite says he’s not yet sold on the trend of using value-added measures in education. Teacher performance, he says, should be one of a variety of measures for student outcome. “It is important to have a structure that really allows teachers to reflect on their practice and come together and talk about how we improve our ability to teach,” he says.

Hite with principal Hite says one of his biggest goals is to improve student performance and bolster career and college readiness through better-quality programs. He plans to integrate more technology into the classroom and hopes to create a “culture of achievement” through more rigorous coursework. “We’ve shown that when students have access to more rigorous programs, they begin to respond to expectations,” Hite says.

Moving Forward

Philadelphia educational leaders, like SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos, say the district is now moving in the right direction after years of instability. The district has embarked on a five-year financial stabilization plan designed to close the projected $1.1 billion shortfall and invest in school safety and security, an issue that has been on the forefront for parents, teachers and the community.

Rosemarie Hatcher, president of the Philadelphia Home and School Council, a parent-driven organization dedicated to improving education, says student safety is a major concern in the district. “Mr. Hite definitely seems to be all about children, so we hope he can focus on parents’ safety concerns, bullying and other issues,” Hatcher says. “We want to see the betterment of all of Philadelphia’s children.”

City officials, like Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, hope that Hite will be the transformative leader the district needs to continue forward. “I was very impressed with Dr. Hite’s passion and commitment to educating children, support for the professional development of teachers and principals, and dedication to working with the broader Philadelphia community,” the mayor said in a statement. “He understands that a high-performing, high-expectation system of schools is critical to the future of the city of Philadelphia.”

Karen Dean, a 24-year educator with Philadelphia who serves as principal at Lankenau Environmental Science Magnet High School, hopes Hite can help make positive changes for teacher development and student success. “He’s got a big job, but he seems to really know what he’s taking on,” she says. “He seems to welcome the challenge.”