William R. Hite Jr. arrived in the city in 2012 at a low point for the Philadelphia School District: Nearly insolvent, it had to borrow hundreds of millions just to pay teachers, and a consulting company recommended it close up to 57 schools.
Over nearly a decade, Hite — who announced this week he’s leaving the superintendency in August 2022 rather than seek a new contract — has reshaped one of the nation’s largest school systems. Here are some highs and lows of his tenure:
In 2020, Moody’s Financial Services called the district’s financial position “the strongest and most stable of its recent operating history,” a position unthinkable 10 years ago, when the system was reeling, in large part because of deep education funding cuts made by Gov. Tom Corbett.
Moving to financial stability was an arduous, yearslong, multipart process that included layoffs, program cuts, and school closures. But there’s no question that he executed the job he was brought to Philadelphia to do by the School Reform Commission.
Perhaps Hite’s greatest strength was his steady hand. After the tumultuous Arlene Ackerman years, marked by financial missteps, a cheating scandal, and a messy public departure and buyout, the superintendent got people who had not trusted the district for a long time to believe in the system — because they believed in him.
Much of the financial turnaround happened because Harrisburg politicians on both sides trusted Hite, with his unflappable demeanor and political savvy, and they eventually passed measures like the cigarette tax that bolstered the district’s coffers.
“We might not have liked the way they gave us the money, but we were able to get Republican legislators to pass tax increases to benefit Philadelphia schoolchildren, and that really has a lot to do with the person Bill is,” said Bill Green, former SRC chair.
Because of that stewardship, the district was able to end 17 years of state takeover in 2018; the SRC gave way to a nine-member school board, appointed by Mayor Jim Kenney.
“He earned our confidence and helped steer the path towards local control and fiscal clarity,” Council President Darrell L. Clarke and Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, chair of Council’s education committee, said in a joint statement after the superintendent’s departure was announced.
There has been much closer collaboration between City Hall and the district under Hite’s watch. City employees now provide behavioral health supports in city schools, and the community schools program embeds extra resources in 17 schools across the city.
Hite opened four new small high schools, designed to be innovative and open to all Philadelphia students, not just the top achievers. He also shifted an existing city high school to become Pennsylvania’s only middle-college program, allowing city students to earn college and high school diplomas simultaneously, and for free.
On his watch, student arrests dramatically decreased thanks to a diversion program for first-time offenders, spearheaded by Kevin Bethel, a former city police deputy commissioner. Hite later brought Bethel in-house, making him school safety chief.
Though Hite’s marching orders were to return the School District to financial stability, it happened at great cost.
At one point, he cut programs and laid off nearly 4,000 employees, including every school counselor, assistant principal, and secretary, as well as hundreds of teachers and support staff; and he also shut 23 schools. Those painful cuts still have ripple effects in schools around the city — in some spots, staffing and programming have not recovered.
Academics were a mixed bag for Hite: The city’s graduation rate is up from 65% to 68% since 2012, and more students are enrolled in Advanced Placement and honors courses than at the beginning of the Hite years. But the nation’s poorest big city still lags most of its urban peers in student achievement — though there was some progress in the last nine years, with fewer students scoring at the lowest levels as measured by state standardized tests and fewer schools considered in need of intervention as measured by the district’s own internal report card.
Just 22% of Philadelphia students meet state standards in math — based on exams from 2018-19, the last year for which such numbers are available — and 36% hit the mark in reading. On his last evaluation, the school board gave Hite a “needs improvement” in the area of student growth and achievement.
Hite inherited more than 200 old buildings that had largely been ignored for years. It would cost a staggering $5 billion to catch up with all the deferred maintenance in Philadelphia schools, according to a 2017 district analysis.
That wasn’t the superintendent’s fault, but he has drawn criticism for how he has managed problems with old buildings and their environmental crises.
Ten schools closed in the 2019-20 school year because of asbestos problems; that came on the heels of a Philadelphia teacher’s diagnosis of mesothelioma, a particularly lethal cancer caused by exposure to damaged asbestos.
Hite also took heat for slow district response to environmental concerns — he has stressed the system lacks enough resources to handle all of the repairs it must make — and also for how the district has communicated about those concerns. During the Hite administration, too often botched repair jobs also have had costs both in dollars and in student and employee health.
Perhaps the most public stumble came in 2019, when a $50 million construction project to colocate Science Leadership Academy and Benjamin Franklin High School was rushed along, sickening students and staff and exposing deep operations problems. An Inquirer investigation and inspector general report concluded that officials, including Hite, had been warned about problems with the project.
Most recently, Hite has taken arrows for the rocky start to this school year. COVID-19 has hit every school system hard, but flaws in district systems became clear in the last few weeks, with a transportation crisis; overworked, underresourced school nurses; and other complications, including a new curriculum that was introduced with little training and failures that led to one school’s inability to feed students one day.
Asked this week about what he might have done differently in his tenure, the superintendent said he doesn’t “try to second-guess a lot of things; everything that we did was with a view toward making conditions better for young people,” adding that “sometimes the urgency created actions that were not as thorough as they probably could have been.”
Activists — and some politicians, including City Councilmembers Helen Gym and Kendra Brooks, both current or recent district parents — said that Hite didn’t rely on or value meaningful community engagement enough during his time in the district, and that he relied too heavily on an agenda of handing over schools and contracts to private firms.
“The district can no longer afford to treat our students, families, and school staff as if they are expendable,” said Brooks, who early in the Hite administration began speaking out against the planned conversion of Steel Elementary in Nicetown to a charter school. “Committing to an inclusive superintendent search is the first step in rebuilding the trust that has been so badly broken over the past weeks, months, and years.”