Two weeks before the end of his superintendency, William R. Hite Jr. was hailed for his decade of steady leadership and the gains Philadelphia School District students made on his watch.
Thursday night’s school board meeting — his 144th and final meeting as schools chief — was a valedictory for Hite, who grew emotional as a video highlighting his years in Philadelphia played.
Mayor Jim Kenney, usually stoic, embraced Hite and said he shone as leader of the nation’s eighth-largest school system.
“I just want to tell you personally that I just find you to be one of the most dedicated, best public servants I’ve ever worked with in 30-plus years,” Kenney said.
Hite came to Philadelphia in 2012, when the district was nearly insolvent. He had to close schools, order mid-year budget cuts, lay off thousands of employees, and cut programs. But he managed to steer the district to much stronger financial footing and, in recent years, the school system has begun to add back some of what it lost in those years.
The school system has also made some academic gains, with more students graduating and earning industry certifications and more reading and doing math on grade level, though those gains have been incremental.
Board president Joyce Wilkerson said perhaps Hite’s most important job was steering the district to a position where it threw off two decades of state control.
“I don’t think there’s anything more important than giving people in Philadelphia the right to control public education,” said Wilkerson. “I want people to understand that reflected years and years of hard decisions, and a lot of stress for everybody.”
Somehow, that stress never seemed to rattle Hite.
Even when there were hundreds of people shouting at him — an occurrence that happened plenty during his 10 years in Philadelphia — Hite “always embodied the grace, ingenuity, and compassion of an exceptional leader,” Wilkerson said.
(Board member Julia Danzy put it more plainly. “You never let it hit you,” Danzy said. “I admire that. By now, I would have been fired so long ago. Well done, good and faithful servant.”)
Hite had missteps and not everyone is sad to see him go. But board member Mallory Fix Lopez said he has “not wavered despite the bureaucratic beast this position forces you to navigate.” His focus was on children, always.
“I sometimes daydream of how much more you could have accomplished for our young people if all leaders at all levels made kids the North Star just like you have done. But my what you have done under such conditions really is incredible,” Fix Lopez said.
Hite, who will work his last day in the district June 14, will become CEO of KnowledgeWorks, an Ohio-based nonprofit that focuses on personalized learning and also lead a new education program at Yale University.
A clearly moved Hite expressed “deep love for our beautiful and very capable, bright, resilient young people who we educate every day,” and deep thanks to the adults who serve them. He thanked parents “for the privilege and honor of educating your child.”
He will be succeeded by Tony B. Watlington Sr., a lifelong educator and formerly the superintendent of Rowan-Salisbury schools in North Carolina.