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Quick Study: Hite must act fast in a fragile district

Bill Hite wants to know what's wrong. Two months into what is arguably one of the toughest jobs in the city - school superintendent - Hite spends much of his time asking people what needs to be fixed, what they need, how the Philadelphia School District can improve.

Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite Jr. talks to students at Greenfield Elementary in Center City. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer)
Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite Jr. talks to students at Greenfield Elementary in Center City. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer)Read more

Bill Hite wants to know what's wrong.

Two months into what is arguably one of the toughest jobs in the city - school superintendent - Hite spends much of his time asking people what needs to be fixed, what they need, how the Philadelphia School District can improve.

During a seven-hour stretch last week - a little over half of his workday, consisting of a meet-and-greet with a local nonprofit board, a tea with Girl Scouts of America officials, two school visits, one keynote address at an awards banquet - the list was endless.

Principals need the district's central office to be easier to navigate. Business leaders want a better-prepared workforce. People want jobs and programs restored, and please don't touch their kid's school.

"I love the directness with which everyone chooses to tell you what they think," Hite, 51, said during the Urban League awards speech, earning a chuckle from the audience, but he means it. He's a guy with a massive job to do and a very narrow window in which to get it done.

Consider: the 145,000-student district is flat broke, having recently borrowed $300 million just to keep the lights on this school year. In the next several days, Hite must present a set of recommendations to close roughly 40 buildings in June. And next month, he will issue a report to the SRC and the public outlining his priorities as superintendent.

"I get a lot of people," Hite said, "who tell me they're praying for me."

Surprise visit

The walkie talkie crackled.

"The superintendent is here to see you," Greenfield Elementary aide Wendy Gosfield told Principal Dan Lazar, who was in the middle of a classroom visit.

"Excuse me?" Lazar said.

"Dr. Hite," said Gosfield, who upon seeing the tall man in the blue suit noted that having the superintendent there was like having a "rockstar in the building!"

Hite, on this December Tuesday, was on the 50th school visit of his tenure, his second of the day. He never announces them beforehand.

"It provides a more accurate picture of what's happening at the school," he said. "I don't want people spending their time getting ready for me."

Lazar was surprised; in four years he had never seen a superintendent at Greenfield, one of the city's best-regarded neighborhood schools, in Center City.

On a tour, Hite's antenna was up. He crouched at students' desks, asking questions (What are you working on? What did you just finish? Who do you go to if you need help?). He leafed through a book report displayed on a bulletin board. He complimented a second-grade teacher on her lesson, with students intently writing stories, their concentration unbroken by visitors.

And Hite wanted to know: How does Lazar manage a school of nearly 600 students with no assistant principal?

"We haven't had the money for one for years," Lazar said. They make it work; two veteran teachers split a dean's position, he explained. Parent volunteers are a big help, too.

One of them, Sharifah Munson, thought the visitor looked familiar. She approached him, and he stuck out his hand with a broad grin, introducing himself. ("I'm Bill Hite.")

"I've seen you on TV," said Munson, mom to second grader Isa and kindergartner Naa'ilah. "I'm very excited to have you here, very excited for what you bring to the city."

Climbing into his district-issued SUV (several years old, beat up inside, driven by a district employee used to Hite's appointments running late) the superintendent listed the reasons he was wowed by Greenfield - dynamic, student-centered classrooms with lots of good questions from teachers. A principal who "knows exactly what he wants for his school, and gets his teachers the resources to do it."

Earlier, at Waring Elementary, on Green Street in the city's Spring Garden section, Hite was impressed at a second-year second-grade teacher whose class, divided into teams, was collaborating productively on an English lesson about word parts.

But that level of engagement wasn't universal. In another classroom, a brand-new teacher was struggling to get control of her class, her prompts ignored by students out of their seats, talking.

Outside the classroom, Hite asked Principal Brianna Dunn what the school did to help struggling teachers.

"Multiple supports," Dunn explained - help from peers, teacher leaders, and from her. Good, Hite said. But later, he wondered - what more could be done?

He's heard the complaint: Teachers are tired of one initiative being rolled out, implemented halfheartedly, then cut in favor of something new.

Budget cuts have touched every corner of the district, Hite knows. People don't know where to go for help. A department of seven processes payroll for 19,000.

"The individuals who are supporting 40 principals apiece are also managing other departments," Hite said. "We have to fix our structure so that we're providing the supports we need."

Great expectations

Long before he managed multibillion-dollar budgets and contemplated the finer points of special-education policy, the superintendent was known as Billy Hite, a running back on the Virginia Tech football team, class of '82.

He had made it to college on scholarship - both parents worked, but the family just made ends meet, growing up with Billy and his brother sharing the lower half of a bunk bed and their two sisters sharing the upper bunk - and felt lucky to be on the team, in a big game against a bitter rival.

"Get the ball to me," Hite remembers telling his teammates in the huddle. "I'm open. I can beat my guy."

Hite got the ball. He dropped the pass.

"It didn't matter that I was black, from poverty," Hite told the Urban League audience. "It wouldn't have mattered if I was learning English. My teammates expected me to deliver." (The team was able to recover, winning the game.)

Most of Philadelphia's public-school children are poor, black, and Latino. Some are not native English speakers.

And right now, only about half are reading and doing math at grade level; just 57 percent earn high school diplomas in four years.

Hite, a former teacher and principal who came to Philadelphia from a job as superintendent in the Prince George's County, Md., school system, is keenly aware of all of those things.

"We have to expect from all of our young people that they can do anything," he said.

But before he and his district team wade into how to address that weighty problem, Hite has to close 40 school buildings.

He wouldn't exactly say he has had a honeymoon period in the weeks he has been in Philadelphia, Hite said, but he has felt a fair amount of goodwill.

That figures to change quickly.

"I would have loved for those recommendations to be made prior to my arrival, but they weren't," Hite said. "But it is my responsibility. It would be irresponsible not to."

With Hite, his bosses on the School Reform Commission, and Mayor Nutter all in lockstep on the message of focusing on providing every student in the city a "high-quality seat" regardless of where they live, job one, they say, is cutting the $33 million they figure the district spends on empty space.

"We have to create a whole bunch of better options for our students, and we cannot even have that conversation with 70,000 extra seats," Hite said in an interview. "We have to spend more efficiently."

Hite wasn't shocked at Philadelphians' bluntness, and he expected to be working 13-hour days. What has taken him by surprise - though he knew about the money problems before his arrival - was just how fragile the district's finances are.

A new long-term plan concluded that without corrective action, the district would be more than $1 billion in the hole in five years. That plan counts on massive savings not yet achieved, including $156 million in give-backs from labor unions - but in some ways, it's a financial house of cards.

"If we make one wrong decision," everything collapses, Hite said. "As bad as it's been, we're looking at situations that are far worse. The far worse could be turning off the lights, or mass layoffs. There's just no wiggle room."

Is that too big a job for Hite, or anyone?

Only time will tell. But for now, people are just glad Hite is listening.

"Already," Greenfield Principal Lazar told the superintendent, "the feeling at the district is different."

About the Superintendent

Observed during part of a regular workday with Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.

at his old job in Maryland because he had a BlackBerry, which he could use without looking down. It's tougher to tweet from a meeting when you have to look at the screen, he explains.