William R. Hite Jr. arrived in the city in 2012 at a low point for the Philadelphia School District: almost insolvent, he had to borrow hundreds of millions just to pay teachers, and a consulting company recommended that he close up to 57 schools.
In nearly a decade, Hite – who this week announced he was stepping down as superintendent in August 2022 rather than seeking a new contract – has reshaped one of the country’s largest school systems. Here are some highs and lows of his tenure:
In 2020, Moody’s Financial Services called the district’s financial condition “the strongest and most stable in its recent operating history,” a position unthinkable 10 years ago when the system faltered, largely due to deep cuts in education funding made by the government. Tom Corbett.
The transition to financial stability was a difficult process that spanned years and included layoffs, program cuts and school closings. But there is no doubt that he performed at work, he was brought to Philadelphia to be done by the School Reform Commission.
Perhaps Hite’s greatest strength was his steady hand. After Arlene Ackerman’s tumultuous years, marked by financial missteps, a fraud scandal and a messy public start and buyout, the superintendent made the system believe in people who hadn’t trusted the district for a long time – because they believed in him.
Much of the financial turnaround happened because Harrisburg politicians on both sides trusted Hite, with his unfazed demeanor and political savvy, and they ultimately passed measures like the cigarette tax which tightened the district coffers.
“We might not have liked the way they gave us the money, but we were successful in getting Republican lawmakers to pass tax increases to benefit Philadelphia schoolchildren, and that really has a lot to do with it. to do with the person that Bill is, ”said Bill Green, former president of the CBC.
As a result of this management, the district was able to end 17 years of state takeovers in 2018; the SRC has given way to a nine-member school board, appointed by Mayor Jim Kenney.
“He won our trust and helped pave the way for local control and fiscal clarity,” said Council Chairman Darrell L. Clarke and Council Member Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, Chair of the Education Committee. of the Council, in a joint statement following the announcement of the departure of the Superintendent.
There was a much closer collaboration between the town hall and the district under the supervision of Hite. City employees are now providing behavioral health supports to schools across the city, and the community schools program integrates additional resources into 17 schools across the city.
Hite has opened four new small high schools, designed to be innovative and open to all students in Philadelphia, not just the best students. It also moved an existing municipal high school to become Pennsylvania’s only college program, allowing students in the city to earn college and high school degrees simultaneously and for free.
Under his watch, student arrests declined significantly thanks to a first offender diversion program, led by Kevin Bethel, a former deputy town police commissioner. Hite then brought Bethel in, making him the head of school security.
Although Hite’s marching orders were to bring the school district back to financial stability, it came at a great price.
At one point he cutting programs and laying off nearly 4,000 employees, including all school counselors, vice-principals and secretaries, as well as hundreds of teachers and support staff; and it also closed 23 schools. Those painful cuts still have ripple effects in the city’s schools today – in some places staff and programming have not recovered.
Academics were mixed for Hite: The city’s graduation rate has fallen from 65% to 68% since 2012, and more students are enrolled in advanced and specialist courses than in the early Hite years. But the country’s poorest large city still lags behind most of its urban peers in terms of academic achievement – although there has been some progress over the past nine years, with fewer students scoring in the lowest levels as measured by state standardized tests and fewer schools considered to require intervention as measured by the district’s own internal report card.
Only 22% of Philadelphia students meet state math standards – based on exams from 2018-19, the latest year for which such numbers are available – and 36% hit the mark in reading. In its last assessment, the school board rated Hite as a “need for improvement” in the area of student growth and achievement.
Hite inherited over 200 ancient buildings that had been largely ignored for years. It would cost $ 5 billion to make up for all deferred maintenance in Philadelphia schools, according to a 2017 district analysis.
It wasn’t the Superintendent’s fault, but he drew criticism for how he handled the issues with old buildings and their environmental crises.
Ten schools closed during the 2019-2020 school year due to asbestos issues; which came on the heels of a Philadelphia teacher’s diagnosis of mesothelioma, a particularly deadly cancer caused by exposure to damaged asbestos.
Hite also took heat for the district’s slow response to environmental concerns – he pointed out that the system lacks sufficient resources to handle all the repairs it needs to make – and also for the way the district has communicated. on these concerns. During the Hite administration, the too often botched repair jobs also had costs both in dollars and in the health of students and employees.
Perhaps the most public failure came in 2019, when a $ 50 million construction project to co-locate Science Leadership Academy and Benjamin Franklin High School was rushed, sickening students and staff and exposing profound operational issues. An Inquirer investigation and a report by the Inspector General concluded that officials, including Hite, had been warned of the problems with the project.
Most recently, Hite took arrows for the difficult start of this school year. COVID-19 has hit all school systems hard, but district systems flaws have become evident in recent weeks, with a transportation crisis; overworked and underfunded school nurses; and other complications, including a new program that was introduced with little training and failures that led to a school’s inability to feed students one day.
Asked this week what he could have done differently during his tenure, the superintendent said he “doesn’t try to guess a lot; everything we did was with the aim of improving conditions for young people ”, adding that“ sometimes the urgency created actions that were not as thorough as they could possibly have been ”.
Activists – and some politicians, including city council members Helen Gym and Kendra Brooks, both current and recent parents in the district – said Hite did not rely enough on meaningful community engagement during his time in the district. district and that he did not rely too much on him. an agenda for the transfer of schools and contracts to private companies.
“The district can no longer afford to treat our students, families and school staff as though they are consumables,” said Brooks, who at the start of the Hite administration began to speak out against the conversion. planned from Steel Elementary to Nicetown into a charter school. “Engaging in an inclusive superintendent search is the first step in rebuilding the trust that has been so severely shattered over the past few weeks, months and years. “