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3 years later, Hite remains a polarizing figure

Some say he has succeeded against formidable odds, others say the jury is still out.

Philadelphia public school superintendent William R. Hite, Jr. addresses a gathering to principals at Fels High School in 2013. ( ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )
Philadelphia public school superintendent William R. Hite, Jr. addresses a gathering to principals at Fels High School in 2013. ( ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )Read moreDN

WHEN THE SCHOOL Reform Commission voted to close 24 Philadelphia public schools in spring 2013 - about six months into Superintendent William Hite's tenure - much of the city was shocked and outraged.

Some saw it as the fulfillment of the infamous Boston Consulting Group report. Many called it a heartless business decision by an outsider, displacing thousands of kids, parents and teachers.

Now, almost three years after he assumed the role of superintendent in October 2012, Hite remains a polarizing figure. He is dogged by critics who see him as a lackey sent to dismantle traditional public education, but he also has his share of supporters who say he has steered the system through an unprecedented financial crisis and is poised to make positive changes if given adequate funding.

Gerald Wright, co-founder of Parents United for Public Education, was part of a group that met Hite when he visited the district as one of two finalists for the job in 2012. Wright said that at the time he favored Hite over the other candidate, Pedro Martinez. He now feels disappointed.

"One of the things he talked a great deal about when he first got here was sitting down with parents and seeing how their voices could be included in the decision-making process," Wright recalled. He noted that Hite held something of a listening tour after being hired, but added, "Listening is not [the same as] including in decision-making."

Many of the decisions made by Hite and the SRC seem predetermined, Wright said, despite the appearance of a public process. He did note that efforts to improve the curriculum at struggling schools are taking place through the Redesign Initiative.

"Those initiatives need to be more strongly worded to bring the communities and the schools and the parents together so they can talk about making significant changes," he said.

A 'brutal' job

Hite's supporters say the former Prince George's County, Md., Public Schools leader has done an excellent job of keeping the district afloat during tough times, particularly in light of the financial upheaval.

"He came into his position in a financial crisis, and I think these past three years he's put the structures in place to move us forward as a district," said Marjorie Neff, chairwoman of the School Reform Commission and a career educator.

Having observed Hite from two perspectives - first as the principal of Masterman, one of the city's crown jewels, and now as head of the body that governs the district - Neff said Hite has kept the system solvent by making difficult decisions that may have been unpopular.

In addition to school closures, painful cuts have come to nurses, counselors, librarians, secretaries and central-office staff.

As the district has taken steps to cope with rising expenses for pensions, health care, charters and debt payments - with little or no increase in money from the state - officials have had to ask City Council each year for tax hikes, which have irked Council and taxpayers.

Neff said Hite has spent significant time in Harrisburg fighting for more funding and talking with lawmakers to help change the narrative about Philly schools.

"I think there's more understanding in Harrisburg than there's been in a while, and I think that's been due to the amount of time and attention he's devoted to it," she said.

The funding woes have not been the only challenges for Hite. More than 50 schools were investigated because of suspected cheating on standardized tests between 2009 and 2011. The superintendent's ability to weather those storms has been important, according to Joseph Dworetzky, a former SRC member who was part of the group that selected Hite.

"One of the things I always would watch for when I'd go into a meeting with him is, 'Is he starting to slow down, is he starting to look worn down?' " Dworetzky said. "I was always kind of surprised for as crazy a job as it is and as much as he has to put up with, it never looked that way. He seems to have managed that very well and it's been crucial, I think, to be able to roll with the punches."

Although they didn't always see eye to eye, Dworetzky lauded Hite for adding high-quality people to his leadership team and for being able to work with the SRC, which has been in flux. He added that, given the funding crisis, it's tough to evaluate the district's academic progress under Hite.

"If you're cutting back at schools, you're laying off people, you're providing less academic supports," he said. "I just don't see how you can normalize it with such a loss in funding."

War with teachers

Although Hite has made allies in Harrisburg, he has made enemies in the teachers union. His attempts to implement changes - reducing the role of seniority and eliminating language that requires one counselor per school, to name two - have been fought each step of the way by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and, so far, have been rejected in court.

Most recently, the district has contracted out the hiring of substitute teachers and issued a request for proposals for health services, which some believe could lead to elimination of certified school nurses.

But by far the biggest assault was the district's unprecedented decision last October to cancel the teachers' contract and impose a new health-care plan. That, too, has been rejected by Commonwealth Court and appealed to the state Supreme Court.

"The members feel disrespected," said Jerry Jordan, president of the PFT. "The demands that have been made on the members and on the union" have been extraordinary, he said.

Jordan said the two sides haven't seriously negotiated since the matters have gone to court. He put the onus on the district to resolve the stalemate.

Meanwhile, Hite, in a recent interview with the Daily News, seemed to soften his stance, saying that he must do "something" for teachers.

"That's critically important, because they've worked too hard, they've sacrificed too much," he said.

"We have to get something to teachers, and that's work that has to be done this year. It cannot wait any longer."

Jordan also accused Hite of trying to balance the budget on the backs of the unions and of compounding the funding situation by supporting additional charter schools.

On the issue of charters - a divisive topic in the city - Hite has been accused of being both for and against. The district has moved to close several charters, but at the same time has let others expand their footprint, further straining the budget.

Veteran teacher Amy Roat criticized Hite as being part of a plot to strip schools of resources in order to privatize the system, similar to what's happened in New Orleans and was tried here on a much smaller scale under Paul Vallas.

"It's a national trend right out of the Broad Academy handbook, and he's doing what he knows how to do," she said, referring to the training ground created by billionaire Eli Broad.

Roat, a teacher at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Caucus of Working Educators - part of the teachers union - added that Hite is to blame for high turnover in many schools.

"All of that churn - the school closures, the teachers going - that's hurting the kids' ability to graduate," she said. "Constant change is not good for kids' education."

Expanding services

Hite defended the decisions to outsource the hiring of substitute teachers and to explore private health services, saying that it's about doing what's best for kids, not adults.

"This was never about privatizing something, but it's about having a conversation about quality and making services better in schools," he said. He noted that no one wants classrooms without teachers, including those who criticize contracting out subs.

He also pointed to the three new high schools, the expansion of Science Leadership Academy and Hill-Freedman World Academy, and district-led turnarounds at Blaine and Kelley as examples of his commitment to high-quality, traditional public schools.

"The whole notion of privatizing is somebody else's language," he said. "What I'm trying to do is expand quality services for children in schools."

Hite, who doesn't shy away from the criticism, admitted he has made some missteps - he would redo the attempt to convert two district-run schools to charters, which was rejected by parents in a heated vote. But he said there have been several victories, among them the removal of any district schools from the state's persistently dangerous list, improved attendance and graduation rates, and a reduction in suspensions.

Although those are encouraging signs, Hite said, he is keenly aware that he must get better at engaging parents in meaningful ways and providing high-quality programs and teachers at all schools, not just in certain neighborhoods or special-admit schools.

"They [students] all have abilities, but they don't all have access and they don't all have opportunities," he said, referring to the issue of equity, one of the key goals in his latest action plan.

Hite said he believes that the resources are coming to help level the playing field.

Getting others involved

Despite the problems in the district, Hite has gotten the business community involved in supporting schools, especially important in a climate of austerity. One of those partners is the Philadelphia Bar Association, which began an ongoing relationship with the district last year.

"I think he's very committed to the children of Philadelphia," chancellor Albert Dandridge III said of Hite. "You can see how committed he is. He's a very affable gentleman and easy to approach and easy to talk to, and he wants what's best, as we all do, for the schoolchildren of Philadelphia, and he's doing the best he can to make that happen."

The bar association has encouraged law firms to sponsor a school and to develop programs to benefit students, Dandridge said. It also held a summerlong school-supply drive.

Almost everyone agrees that piloting a large urban district is a hard job, especially given the politics in Philadelphia and the partisan divide in Harrisburg. Like most in the city who want to see public schools thrive, Wright, from Parents United, still has hope that the man who seemed so in tune with what parents wanted three years ago will make good on some of his promises.

"I still think that Dr. Hite wants to do the right thing," he said, pausing briefly, "but you just don't know."

On Twitter: @ChroniclesofSol