Hite says he’s ready to face challenges of Philly schools

Posted: June 27, 2012

William R. Hite Jr. knows the first order of business if he's named Philadelphia schools superintendent.

"The best thing someone can do now is stop talking and listen. Only when you do that is there an opportunity to begin a healing process," Hite told a community battered by budget cuts, an ugly exit of the former superintendent, and announced but yet unclear plans for its future.

Hite, currently superintendent of the Prince George's County Public Schools in Maryland, is one of two finalists for the Philadelphia School District's top post. As fellow finalist Pedro Martinez did Monday, Hite spent all day Tuesday answering questions from the community.

As leader of a 135,000-student, majority-poor district in the suburbs of Washington, Hite has come up against some of the challenges he would face in Philadelphia: a delicate political situation, enormous budget problems, and the need to close schools and reorganize central administration.

He wanted to be clear, Hite said - he's not in the running for the Philadelphia job because he's in a bad spot.

"This is not a run away from something," said Hite, 51. "We have a very successful system, a system that still needs a lot of work, but nonetheless we've made some pretty significant progress."

Hite has cited increasing student achievement, adding supports for Prince George's County's toughest schools, and improving teacher and principal training, all despite having to cut at least $100 million from the district budget each of the last three years.

The district's school board and teachers' union have both praised Hite and said they hope he does not leave Maryland.

If offered the Philadelphia job, Hite said, he is not certain he'd take it.

If he has to make a choice between Prince George's County and Philadelphia, "it's going to be a difficult decision," he said, one that he would make with his wife, who works as an administrator at Georgetown University. The couple have two children and a new grandchild.

But he said he sees real promise in Philadelphia, despite the district's gargantuan obstacles - it must borrow at least $218 million to make ends in the 2012-13 school year, is planning on closing 64 schools in the next five years, and is facing an overhaul of the way schools are organized.

"You're uniquely positioned," Hite said. The challenges have "opened a window that we can either take advantage of this opportunity, or lose the opportunity and continue on whatever the spiral is."

In public meetings Thursday, Hite, a tall man with an angular face, appeared at ease. At the two-hour nighttime session, Hite stood the whole time, taking off his suit jacket, even eliciting a laugh from the audience when asked if he'd be willing to accept a contract that was back-loaded, with higher pay in later years if his performance was good.

"I'll let my wife answer," he joked, then said that his current contract was similarly structured but that he would not negotiate in public.

When Hite introduced himself at the nighttime session, he clutched a piece of yellow paper with jagged edges.

He had written down things Philadelphia students had told him in an earlier meeting, things he found profound - one teen said it was a shame that some schools have more police officers than counselors; another talked about language barriers; a third said students wished teachers tailored their styles to the way they learn.

It reminded him that "we can never give up on students," he said - even the toughest ones.

Hite has been a high school business and middle school reading teacher, a principal, and a central office staffer. He worked as deputy superintendent in Cobb County, Ga., and Prince George's County before taking the top job there.

Hite keeps in mind that he was last a teacher in 1989 - long before No Child Left Behind.

"The classroom stuff is good, but it's not sufficient to understand what's needed in the classroom today. It's important for me to have the opportunity to receive voice from those individuals who are in the classroom," Hite said.

But he did cite examples from his past that might help him. When he was a teacher and couldn't get his students to understand a certain concept, he said, he thought then that it was about the students. Now, he said, he thinks he ought to have been "more reflective in my practice."

"We have to change and reflect on our practice in order to meet [students] where they are," Hite said.

Once, when he was principal of a new middle school of 800 students, he knocked on 660 doors - sitting at kitchen tables, on stoops, in living rooms, talking about why families needed to be involved in their children's education.

Two thousand families showed up to that school's ribbon cutting.

It was a lesson in "meeting them where they were, not where I was," Hite said.

Prince George's County has Maryland's highest number of charter schools outside Baltimore City, and Hite said he was comfortable using them in a "portfolio" of school choices. But that district has also used contracts with other organizations to run programs inside district schools - a student-run bank, an information technology program, a program where students concurrently earn high school diplomas and associate degrees.

"I'm committed to a set of effective schools, whatever the title is," Hite said.

Hite also said he had read up on Philadelphia district's multiple plans - a blueprint for transformation, a budget plan, a strategic plan, and others.

"All of them seem kind of disconnected," Hite said. If he comes to Philadelphia, he would want to help rectify that, he said.

One member of the audience asked Hite how he would handle the district's terrible financial situation.

"Whooo," he said, breathing out, earning another laugh.

"We have to talk differently about how we do our work because we have no other choice," he said. Hite said the district must eliminate wasteful spending or the perception of it, and operate "more efficiently and effectively."

And the numbers "should be public. That should be for everybody to see."

Hite and Martinez, who is the deputy superintendent of the Clark County, Nev., school system, have emerged from a group of about 100 applicants and nominees. A superintendent search committee winnowed that group down to 11, including five from Philadelphia, and finally the two.

Search committee chair Wendell Pritchett has said the final decision on a superintendent could be made as early as this week.

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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