As he heads for the exit, Philly schools chief Hite reflects on his 10-year tenure
PHILADELPHIA — When William Hite Jr. was named the superintendent for the School District of Philadelphia in 2012, he arrived during a financial crisis that was caused by the end of federal stimulus funds and state budget cuts.
“At the time I arrived here, the Obama stimulus money was expiring and that money had been used to provide salary increases and to add staff,” Hite said during his final interview with The Philadelphia Tribune this week.
“There were significant cuts at the state level, an elimination of about $800 million from public education funding,” he said. “Those two things collided and created a within year revenue shortfall of almost $100 million.
“Over a five-year period, that deficit increased to $1.37 billion. We were operating the school district from paycheck to paycheck, and our pay periods are $44 million,” he added.
Hite said the only way to turn things around was “rightsizing” the school district. District leaders had to borrow hundreds of millions for operating expenses. Programs for students were cut.
In 2013, nearly 4,000 employees were laid off, including school counselors, assistant principals, teachers and support staff. In 2014, 23 district schools permanently closed their doors.
“We had to make a lot of hard decisions, but we eventually gained credibility with the state,” Hite said. The Philadelphia delegation to the state legislature “was working hard on our behalf. The city also took steps by allowing us to use $120 million a year that was connected to taxes.
“We started seeing performance increases and began filling positions that were vacant for many years,” he added. “We were able to create a level of stability. All of these things became the impetus for requesting that the school district return to local control.”
Hite, 60, is leaving his role as superintendent on June 15 after a decade-long tenure, making him the longest-tenured superintendent in the history of the school district, which educates nearly 114,902 students in 216 schools.
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During his tenure, Hite and his administration have moved the district to financial stability, doubled the number of higher-performing schools, increased graduation rates, modernized early literacy classrooms in 48 schools and increased the number of students taking advanced placement and dual enrollment courses and earning industry credentials.
Hite opened four new high schools and transformed an existing city high school to Parkway Center City Middle College, Pennsylvania’s only middle college program where students can earn a high school diploma and an associate’s degree upon graduation.
Student arrests have dramatically decreased due to a diversion program for first-time offenders, which is spearheaded by former city police deputy commissioner and school district school safety chief Kevin Bethel.
The district was also able to end a 17-year state takeover in 2018. The School Reform Commission was replaced by the Board of Education, a nine-member school board that is appointed by Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney.
“I have so many proud moments in the district,” Hite said. “We now have nurses in every school. A lot of people thought we were cutting nurses, but Philadelphia never had nurses in every school building.
“All of our children in K-8 schools have access to music and art,” he said. “When I first got here, we had 22 schools on the persistently dangerous list and now, for the sixth year in a row, we have zero.
Philly schools superintendent William Hite is leaving
“However, I’m most proud of the children who graduate,” he said. “A lot of the children who are graduating this year were third-graders when I arrived in Philadelphia. I enjoy seeing our young people go and be able to pursue their aspirations and more importantly come back and either work here in the city or the school district.”
In addition to his accomplishments in the district, Hite has also had his share of challenges.
There have been environmental concerns and safety issues with school buildings, including lead and mold. Ten schools had to close in the 2019-2020 school year because of asbestos.
In March 2020, Hite was forced to shut down schools for district students due to COVID-19.
As students returned to in-person learning, the school year was beset by problems. The pandemic caused dire shortages of bus drivers, food workers, classroom aides and other vital workers. The district has also seen a rise in mid-year resignations from teachers.
“There are a lot of things that I would do differently,” Hite said. “You have to constantly debrief, analyze and assess the work.
“Everything that we did was with the view toward making sure children have what they need in order to achieve the outcomes we want them to achieve,” he added.
Tony Watlington Sr., who is the superintendent at the Rowan-Salisbury Schools in North Carolina, will take over the reins from Hite as superintendent on June 16.
Hite said he has been working with Watlington since he was appointed to the role in April.
“We’ve been talking weekly,” Hite said. “He’s a great educator and a gentleman who listens first, learns from what he hears and who has made a commitment to the City of Philadelphia.
“He and I went to Harrisburg several weeks ago and I was able to introduce him to legislative leaders at the state level and the same with advocates, the philanthropic community, elected officials and union leaders,” he said.
“I’m providing him with as much information as I can,” he added. “I wanted to make sure his transition was as smooth as possible.”
Next, Hite will be the CEO and president of the Cincinnati-based educational nonprofit KnowledgeWorks, effective July 1. He will oversee an annual budget of $14 million, a $125 million investment portfolio and a staff of nearly 50.
He has also been named the inaugural superintendent in residence and executive fellow at the Broad Center at Yale University’s School of Business for the 2022-2023 school year.
“I’ll still be in education,” Hite said. “I’ll be helping other colleagues as they look to become superintendents in this work. I’ll also be playing some golf, doing some traveling and seeing my grandkids.”
Chanel Hill is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.
Originally published at www.penncapital-star.com,by Special to the Capital-Star