Who is the new Philadelphia School District superintendent?

He is William R. Hite Jr., 51, most recently the superintendent of the Prince George's County, Md., public schools, a politically tough system with a growing majority of poor students and a recent history of budget problems.

He is a former teacher and principal who once knocked on 660 doors in Henrico, Va., to help get parents invested in their children's education.

He is "sincere about making child-driven decisions," said Verjeana M. Jacobs, the current president of the Prince George's County school board, who has worked with Hite for six years and is sad to see him go.

In two words, he is "very engaged," said University of Pennsylvania senior Haywood Perry III, a graduate of Oxon Hill High in Prince George's County who worked closely with Hite as a student member of the school board. "He was always asking students: 'What are your dreams? What do you hope to do? What do you think the school system is preparing you to do?' "

In his own words, Hite - whose selection was announced by the School Reform Commission on Friday night and whose salary and start date have not been determined - is "a servant leader" who can help the commission reform a district on the brink of insolvency, preparing to completely reimagine the way its schools are managed.

"We have to talk differently about how we do our work, because we have no other choice," Hite told Philadelphians on Tuesday, when he first came to town for a daylong series of interviews.

'His heart into it'

When Mark Edwards first met Hite in the early 1990s, Philadelphia's new superintendent was a new middle school principal.

Edwards, then head of the Henrico County, Va., schools, grew to like and trust Hite, whom he promoted several times. "He was a significant leader in terms of instructional improvement," said Edwards, now superintendent of the Mooresville, N.C., school system. "Bill is without a doubt one of the most excellent educational leaders that I've ever worked with."

But perhaps more significant, Edwards said, Hite "is a very caring individual. I think the community will see that he'll put his intellectual efforts into the work, but he'll also put his heart into it."

After spending almost 20 years in Henrico County, Hite became deputy superintendent in Cobb County, Ga., then in 2006 arrived in Prince George's County as the second in command there. He has been the superintendent there since 2009.

Make no mistake, said Jacobs, the Prince George's board president - "we've had some tough times. As soon as he became superintendent, we had to make some really tough decisions, and we've had three consecutive years of $150 million in cuts per year."

Hite froze all salaries, ordered two-day furloughs for all employees, and cut 1,300 positions. Class sizes rose. Schools were closed. Prekindergarten was reduced from a full-day to a half-day program. The organizational structure changed, with the old regions turned into "zones" that Hite said better support schools.

That's a model that Philadelphia is examining, albeit Philadelphia's leadership has suggested the new structures could be run by outside groups, like charter organizations, and Prince George's County's are district-run. Hite said the new model changed things "so that we didn't have a lot of people just running around and telling people what to do, coming into classes to see if they were on the right page on the right day. We now engage more with conversations on content."

Even with all the changes, the Prince George's teachers' union strongly backed Hite, praising him for being accessible and responsive.

Theresa Dudley, a Prince George's middle school social studies teacher, said Hite acknowledged how overworked teachers are and earned goodwill with little gestures - such as allowing them to work from home on the day they had to enter grades, a day they were traditionally required to physically be at work.

Hite, who is paid $250,000 annually in Prince George's County, has come out in favor of extending the school day for students - his doctoral thesis at Virginia Tech University was on the subject - and for merit pay for teachers. In Prince George's County, he implemented a weighted student funding formula that allocates money based on students' needs.

Arlene C. Ackerman, Hite's predecessor in Philadelphia, piloted a version of the program here, but it fizzled when the district's budget crisis hit. Prince George's County is about to go to a full "student-based" budgeting system, with more funds allocated for students who are, for instance, above or below grade level, living in poverty, or learning to speak English.

When it announced his departure Friday, the Prince George's board hailed the "stability, progress, transparency, and accountability" Hite brought, and noted that the financial challenges he faced "might have broken a weaker superintendent."

S. Dallas Dance, a teacher under Hite in Virginia and now the superintendent of Baltimore County schools, has watched the career of his mentor and friend closely.

"Prince George's County has its issues, more so politically than anything else, but Billy was able to handle them with finesse," said Dance, who labeled his former boss a strong communicator who will "always err on the side of too much information, not enough."

Expect a combination of toughness and empathy from Hite, Dance said.

"Bill is hard-driving," he said, "but he understands that people matter most."

All can learn

"Billy" Hite was born in Richmond, Va., in 1961 to a department-store-clerk mother and transit-company-employee father. Mary and William Hite Sr. emphasized hard work and the value of education to their two sons and two daughters.

Hite attended Virginia Tech on a football scholarship, graduating in 1984 with a degree in secondary education. He worked briefly in marketing, but turned to the classroom in 1985, when he became a marketing teacher at J.R. Tucker High School in Henrico, where he coached softball and football.

Hite is married with two daughters and a new grandson.

He loves to read, watch sports, and golf. His wife, Deirdre Francis-Hite, an administrator at Georgetown University, is a runner and Hite is a cyclist, but "I suspect there's not going to be a lot of time here in the near future for me to do a lot of those things," he said.

Hite is unequivocal: All students can learn, even the toughest ones.

"I think smart is something you become, not something you are," he said. "With the right efforts, we can make all students smart."

He has made mistakes, Hite said - as a teacher, if students didn't understand his lessons, he sometimes assumed it was the child's issue and not his.

The correct solution is not to write the answer harder on the blackboard, Hite said in a public session Tuesday.

"We have to change and reflect on our practice in order to meet them where they are," he said during a meeting with teachers.

Luke Zeller, an English teacher at Overbrook High, sitting in the audience, nodded.

"It's nice to hear someone say the word reflection in relation to practice," Zeller said. "We don't often hear that here."

Hite also pointed to a massive scheduling fiasco in Prince George's County that happened on his watch - a situation, he said, that proved the importance of creating an atmosphere where all employees can feel safe to say when they think things are going wrong.

After hearing Hite answer questions Tuesday night, Susan Gobreski, director of Education Voters Pennsylvania, was impressed. Hite, she said, "had some serious gravitas."

"He spoke the language of education, instead of the jargon," Gobreski said. "He talked like an educator - like somebody who understood that things need to change, but who understood they need to be done in a way that is consistent with pedagogy, working with teachers and principals."

Debra Weiner, a longtime education activist and former district employee, also thinks Hite is ready to lead the nation's eighth-largest school system.

"He showed remarkable emotional intelligence - a rare quality in folks whose egos are as big as the job challenges they face," Weiner said. "When he said, 'We need healing, and I'm going to do a listening campaign,' I thought: 'Oh, man, I love you.' "

Mayor Nutter, in a statement, said he was "very impressed with Dr. Hite's passion and commitment to educating children, support for the professional development of teachers and principals, and his dedication to working with the broader Philadelphia community."

Teachers union president Jerry Jordan said he was hopeful Hite's appointment would bring "stability and clarity" to the district.

"Dr. Hite's background as an educator and administrator in urban school districts should serve him well as he navigates the unique challenges facing Philadelphia's Public Schools," Jordan said in a statement. "The PFT looks forward to collaborating with the new Superintendent to ensure our students and teachers are given the support, tools, and conditions that foster high quality teaching and learning."

Hite's record in Maryland is "encouraging," said Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership, a nonprofit founded to raise money to fund good schools - public, parochial, and charter.

Gleason attended Hite's Tuesday meeting with the charter community, and he came away thinking "he was perhaps a little tentative about certain aspects of the transformation plan, but I trust the SRC . . . when they say they're confident he's ready to lead toward the vision they've articulated."

Hite said he was comfortable with charter schools, but felt districts "should be more intentional about who they serve and where they are."

Perry, the former Prince George's student who now attends Penn, said that even amid a big bureaucracy - Prince George's County has 135,000 students, compared with about 145,000 in district schools in Philadelphia and 46,000 in charters - Hite didn't get caught up in politics or the personalities.

"He's a very no-drama kind of person," Perry said.

Still, Hite has earned the ire of at least some in Maryland. One website encourages citizens to sign on to a "no confidence" vote on Hite, citing what the author sees as Hite's poor personnel decisions, wasteful spending, and other problems.

But that appears to be the exception rather than the rule.

Hite clearly has the SRC behind him, and a community cautiously optimistic about what he will bring to Philadelphia.

But all that is likely to feel very far away when Hite is confronted with the realities of one of the toughest school systems in the country, a district with massive fiscal problems, and a public historically wary of district leadership.

"I want to talk about political savvy," one woman in the audience asked Hite at a Philadelphia meet-and-greet Tuesday night. "Are you feeling strong?"

Hite didn't hesitate.

"Yes, ma'am," he said in his soft Southern accent. "I am."