When William R. Hite Jr. became superintendent of the Philadelphia School District, the 7,500 students who will graduate from high school over the next few days were only third graders.
As Hite prepares to leave the job he’s held for a decade — next Wednesday is his last day — there’s been a lot of looking back. But Hite doesn’t hesitate when asked about the high point of his time in Philadelphia: It’s the students.
On Thursday, he looked out at several hundred of them gathered at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts with the wide, genuine smile and easygoing manner that have been his hallmark when surrounded by young people.
“I’m going to miss all of you the most,” said Hite, 61, one of the longest-tenured superintendents in the district’s history. He shouted out students in the auditorium for their accomplishments, but also for their resiliency.
“Many of you had to be flexible with things that we had to do just to get the district financially viable again,” he said.
When Hite came to Philadelphia, the district was on the brink of insolvency; it had to borrow $300 million just to pay its bills. Hite closed schools and at one point laid off thousands of employees, including counselors, nurses, teachers, and other staff.
Hite may be best remembered for the steady hand he brought to the job and the significant behind-the-scenes work done on his watch to return the system to financial health. During his tenure, the district was able to emerge from almost two decades of state control.
While he was generally well-regarded by politicians and education watchers, Hite took heat for his handling of operations, particularly facilities issues. In his most recent job evaluation, he received a “needs improvement” in two areas: student growth and achievement, and systems leadership and operations. The district’s principals’ union has also clashed with him in recent years.
“Ten years is a long time,” Hite noted at a news conference Thursday. He said it’s tough to pick just one thing that stands out from his decade as superintendent. But in addition to restoring financial stability and local control, Hite said he was proud of creating new systems and negotiating new union contracts.
“We had to improve water fountains, and access to clean water for our children,” Hite said. “We had to graduate more children and get more reading on grade level. We had to eliminate the Persistently Dangerous schools. I think it’s a body of work.”
The most crucial thing he did?
“There was no more important thing than getting schools reopened for young people after the pandemic,” Hite said.
Hite, who is paid $334,644 annually as superintendent, will become CEO of KnowledgeWorks, an education nonprofit. He will also serve as superintendent in residence and executive fellow at a new Yale University program for educators.
But Hite wanted the spotlight on the students Thursday.
He brought five graduating seniors to his final news conference — Anyeah Jones, from The Workshop School, who will work as a mechanic for SEPTA and attend Community College; Crechka Sanchez-Ramirez, from South Philadelphia High School, who will attend Temple University; Kevin Arthur, from CAPA, who will attend the New School; Peter Lee, from the Academy at Palumbo, who joined the Army; and Sarah Church, a senior at West Philadelphia High School, who will attend Kutztown University.
When the pandemic began, they were sophomores, and they missed part of their 10th grade and all of their 11th-grade year inside school buildings. It was tough on their mental health, said Arthur, who plays saxophone, oboe, and French horn. He started a club for Black male students at CAPA and plans to major in music composition in college.
“I learned that I could be really flexible in tough circumstances, and I also learned that the school district could be just as flexible,” Arthur said.
Church, who lost her mother and her home during the pandemic, said she found an anchor in her school, her teachers, and her friends. And while Hite didn’t work at her school, she felt he worked for it, said Church, who considers herself “a success story from the Philadelphia School District.”
“I know my fellow students are set up for success because of his efforts,” she said of Hite.