In a town that loves pro football, most Philadelphians have learned over the years that you can't win the game without giving your best player the ball. That's what the School Reform Commission would be doing by extending Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.'s contract. The SRC plans to formally approve that extension when it meets Thursday.
Any mistakes Hite has made since coming to Philadelphia from a suburban Washington school district in 2012 are far outweighed by the caliber of his performance in the midst of a fiscal firestorm, which has been exacerbated by the state legislature's inability to pass a budget. With the equivalent of baling wire and rubber bands, Hite has kept Philadelphia's schools open.
But that's not all. Even without the additional millions Hite said he needed to execute his Action Plan 3.0, the superintendent has instituted innovations that are making a difference in city kids' education. When traditional schools fail, he has been open to alternatives that give children a better chance to succeed.
That hasn't sat too well with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which understandably dislikes any policy that might reduce its ranks. But the union's recalcitrance adds to the reasons to retain Hite. Knowing it can't wait out yet another superintendent - Philadelphia has had three in five years - might make the union more amenable to needed changes.
Hite's plan creates three special networks: a "turnaround" network, in which the worst-performing schools might become charters; an "opportunity" network for alternative schools, some providing accelerated learning programs; and an "innovation" network, which includes schools using research and development techniques to improve academic outcomes.
With Hite's current contract expiring in 2017, it's conceivable that he could start looking for a new job next year without an extension. To preclude that, the SRC is looking at extending his contract to 2022. That's a commitment that cannot be taken lightly given the nearly $1 million payout the district had to make to get Arlene Ackerman to resign in 2011. Thomas Knudsen served as the system's interim chief recovery officer between her departure and Hite's arrival.
There's no guarantee that Hite and the SRC will have the same rosy relationship even a year from now. Hite got a glowing report card from the SRC in July, but even he admits he should have done better in some areas. The political grind that comes with being a big-city superintendent also could send Hite packing. But that's unlikely.
Interviewed Thursday after a long day that included lobbying for more education funding from the state, Hite sounded just as energized as he did when he became superintendent. "I'm excited about the work to be done," he said, adding that Philadelphia has "some of the most conscientious and passionate educators I have ever worked with." It sounds as if Hite still wants the ball. Let's give it to him.