Sizing up two likely schools chief candidates

Pedro Martinez , deputy superintendent of schools in Nevada's Clark County district, is in town to meet educators and others in the community here. PAUL TAKAHASHI / Las Vegas Sun
Pedro Martinez , deputy superintendent of schools in Nevada's Clark County district, is in town to meet educators and others in the community here. PAUL TAKAHASHI / Las Vegas Sun
Posted: June 26, 2012

Pedro Martinez is a rising star, an accountant turned reform-minded school administrator. William R. Hite Jr. is a career educator who has brought stability to a large, politically tough, predominantly poor district.

One of them is likely to be named Philadelphia's next superintendent, possibly as early as this week.

Martinez is in town Monday for a full day of getting-to-know-you sessions with teachers, principals, business and political leaders, and others; Hite has a similar schedule Tuesday.

Martinez, 42, is currently deputy superintendent for instruction in the Clark County, Nev., school system. Headquartered in Las Vegas, it's one of the country's largest districts and one of its lowest performing.

Martinez was brought there as part of a team of reformers last year, and supporters say that despite his short tenure, he's gotten results, especially in boosting the graduation rate.

"We're going in the right direction, and he was hugely influential in that," said Amanda Fulkerson, Clark County School District spokeswoman.

Martinez started a "Reclaim Your Future" program, organizing the district's top administrators to knock on the doors of juniors and seniors at risk of not graduating. He launched credit-retrieval "boot camps" and initiated the first summer graduation for students just shy of making it to the finish line in June. He oversaw Las Vegas' turnaround efforts, including three high schools that saw jumps in things like attendance and the high school proficiency-exam passage rate.

He oversaw a reorganization of the district and implemented a tracking system for students system-wide.

He's a numbers guy, those who know him say - ask him questions about one of Las Vegas' 357 schools, and he might rattle off school data from memory.

Martinez came to the United States from Mexico as a child and was trained as an accountant and worked in finance early in his career. But after completing the Broad Superintendents Academy - a program that trains urban school leaders and emphasizes bringing some elements of the business world to education - he shifted his focus. Martinez worked as chief financial officer in Chicago under Arne Duncan, now the U.S. secretary of education.

He's clearly on the move. After spending six years in Chicago, the third-largest school system in the United States, Martinez worked in Washoe County (Reno), Nev., as a deputy, then left for Las Vegas. He's also now a finalist for Reno's top job.

"We would hate to lose him, but we know that he's superintendent material, and we support him," Fulkerson said. "We think his skill set would be an asset to students in every district."

But Martinez and Clark County Superintendent Dwight Jones haven't pleased everyone, including the teachers' union there, Fulkerson said.

"Things are changing here," she said, "and some people aren't super excited about it."

A spokeswoman for the teachers' union said that its president was out of town and that she could not comment.

Will his lack of classroom experience hurt Martinez in Philadelphia, where the public is still smarting from the proposal of a total overhaul of the district that some believe is a push for privatization? When Martinez was interviewing for his current job, his lack of teaching background was an issue, but he overcame it.

EdisonLearning Inc., a for-profit company, runs some schools in Clark County, but its contract there predates Martinez's tenure.

Personally, Martinez is described by those who know him as affable, a consensus builder. He has a wife and a young child and holds an MBA from DePaul University.

Hite, 51, was a football player at Virginia Tech University who briefly held a marketing job before becoming a teacher and working his way through the ranks of school administration - principal and central office staffer in Virginia, deputy superintendent in Cobb County, Ga. He's also a product of the Broad Superintendents Academy and holds a doctorate in education from Virginia Tech.

From Georgia, Hite was recruited to Prince George's County, Md., a complex district of more than 120,000 mostly African American students, with a growing poor population. But some of its biggest challenges have been political.

There was a fair amount of turnover at the top, with one recent superintendent departing under a cloud and spending time in prison on corruption charges. Hite's predecessor, John Deasy - now schools chief in Los Angeles - abruptly left for a job with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, just as the district's financial picture started to darken.

There had also been a history of great tension between the board and superintendent. Hite has not had such troubles.

But it has not been an easy road in Prince George's County, which has had the same money problems districts around the country have encountered. Hite has had to make millions in cuts; there have been some staff layoffs and class-size increases.

He's earned the ire of at least some in Prince George's County. One group has dedicated itself to pushing reforms and is circulating a petition encouraging citizens to sign on to a "no confidence" vote on Hite, citing what they see as Hite's poor personnel decisions, wasteful spending, "disrespect and disdain shown to teachers," and other problems.

But Theresa Dudley, a Prince George's County social studies teacher and member of the teachers' union executive board, said the union has "a very good working rapport with Dr. Hite."

Dudley described Hite as "very cognizant of how overworked teachers are" and said he's a "listener, a thinker, not someone who says, 'I'm going to jump in and fix this' without talking to people."

Union president Kenneth Haines agreed with Dudley.

In a statement, Haines said that "despite three successive years of budget cuts and the elimination of 3,000 positions, the Prince George's County Public Schools have continued to show improvements in student achievement in a school system where two-thirds of the students live below the poverty line," Haines said. "His steady hand on the helm will be sorely missed during these troubling economic times."

When Hite rose from deputy superintendent to superintendent in Prince George's County, he didn't rip up everything his predecessors had done and start over, which could be key for the School Reform Commission, which has said it doesn't want a star but a team player who can keep successful reforms and launch new ones.

Educationally, Hite is focused on issues of equity and has zeroed in on support for the toughest schools. He favors merit pay for teachers - Prince George's County has it - and he likes the idea of lengthening the school day for students who need it.

He's a communicator, those who know him say. He personally responds to parent e-mails. He has a Twitter account.

S. Dallas Dance, Baltimore County superintendent and a friend of Hite's, said that he was "hard-driving, but he listens to the unions. Even when people disagree with him, they know that his decisions are based on kids."

Hite, who is married with two children, hired Dance as a teacher in Virginia. Dance said he looks up to Hite, who "doesn't come across as being arrogant," Dance said. "He's down to earth - when you're having a conversation with him, you're not talking to the superintendent, you're talking to Bill. He's not the guy who's looking for national attention or seeking the next opportunity."

When Hite told the Prince George's County district community that he was a finalist in Philadelphia, he wrote that he had "not sought out other professional opportunities," but that he has "been approached on numerous occasions and have turned them down." Philadelphia, he said, was a chance he felt he had to explore.

The possibility of leaving for Philadelphia also comes at a time when Hite is dealing with a relatively new school board that will soon have to decide whether to renew his contract, which is up in 2013.

In its message to the community about Hite's Philadelphia candidacy, the Prince George's County board called him a "talented superintendent" and said that if he were to leave, "we would be sorry to see him go." Hite's Philadelphia candidacy is a "validation of the progress we are making in our school district," it said.


Contact Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com or on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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