Increasing the level of financial transparency, upgrading communications between all levels and departments, establishing a dialog with parents, and improving the quality of education are at the top of the agenda for new School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Dr. William Hite Sr.
Hite said during a meeting this week with The Tribune Editorial Board he will present his road map on just how to accomplish those goals when he publishes a report detailing his plans in roughly 90 days.
“The next 90 days or so will be spent really looking at every part of the system, trying to engage the public in a process to talk about what they want to see in the system, and what things we do well and don’t do well, and getting into as many schools as possible,” Hite said. “Really try to determine the structures and systems in place.
“At the end of the 90 days, after I have gotten all the information, I want to then tell everyone, ‘This is what I’ve found, here are all of these plans, and I’m going to try to make sense of all this stuff, here’s what I’m going to do about and here’s how you hold me responsible.’ The plan is what I plan to do about it, and how people can hold me accountable for it.”
Hite referred to sorting out several overlapping documents: the Five-Year Reorganization Blueprint, the FY 2012–2013 school budget and the recently released Five-Year Financial Plan. All of these documents were drafted by the district’s chief recovery officer, Thomas Knudsen, who will most likely stay on as chief financial officer, Hite said. Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon appears to be staying on as well.
While Hite’s tenure as superintendent of the Prince Georges County Public Schools system led to that district having a budget surplus upon Hite’s departure earlier this year, Hite said PGCPS shares many similarities and challenges with Philadelphia’s school district.
“It is a tremendous challenge, but I didn’t see it as something that is much different than what many urban districts are facing across the country,” Hite said, referencing the recently-concluded strike by Chicago teachers, and the similar conflicts with school districts in Los Angeles. “In the last three years, [at PGCPS] we’ve had to lay off 1,300 individuals and cut over $300 million out of our budget.
“So many urban districts are struggling with some of the same issues. I like to describe it as the ‘new normal,’ and gone are the days where we’ll see millions in stimulus flow through. We’d most likely see five percent, 10 percent increases over the previous year’s budgets. I think now is the time when we’re really talking about doing more effective things with what we have, and controlling what we have a lot more efficiently and effectively.”
A way to do that is to advocate on behalf of students for more money at the state level. Hite repeatedly mentioned that advocacy is one of his strongest suits — and that he would personally get involved in that process.
“On the other hand, I believe that [state public education officials] have to see an improved product and an improved system to which they’d want to invest - which means [the school district] has to be a lot more efficient, a lot more transparent and a lot more effective with the monies we have,” Hite said. “I think you have to prove your worth to some degree at first, and that’s the other side of it. So that it’s an advocacy on one side, but on the other side, it is a description that we are putting this house in order and moving as much money as we can to support students in schools and in classrooms.”
Hite, who knows former superintendent Arlene Ackerman well, and is aware of the controversy her tenure and subsequent departure caused, understands that his administration will face close scrutiny, especially if Hite doesn’t reach the more easily attainable goals — which could produce tangible, if tiny, gains. But Hite said if the goals are set up properly, and with the right focus, then students would be among the first to embrace them.
“Naturally, my goals are centered around making sure that students have the types of opportunities beyond high school, and the skills to do the things they want to do once they leave high school, whether that means moving into the work world or into higher education … there’s 140,000-plus students still being educated in this city, and so one can’t give up hope, because then we’re giving up on the students here,” Hite said, noting that he’s used to answering questions about the high turnover rate for superintendents. Hite was the seventh superintendent of PGCPS had during Hite’s 13 years there. “So I think when you start to get at all those structural issues, all of the inefficiencies, all of the disbelief and all of the skepticism, one at a time. And I think you start dealing with those issues one at a time.
“If individuals don’t have faith that the school system can deliver on something, then perhaps we don’t try to do a hundred different things and not deliver any. Perhaps we try to do one or two, and do it really well — so we are actually delivering a product.”
Given all the challenges facing the district, it is fair to question Hite’s motives for even considering the job in the first place. But beyond these problems of today lies optimism of a better public education tomorrow, and Hite said that’s why he came here.
“I am interested in making a difference for all children, and I see this as a tremendous opportunity. The fact that we have no money, the fact the schools are low-performing, the fact that there’s a high dropout right, the fact that Latino males are dropping out faster than anyone else, the fact that many of our schools are in disrepair — we have to think differently; and that’s the opportunity part of it,” Hite said. “I tell staff members that this will be tough, but I appreciate their work. I acknowledge them. I want to hear them, and I want to get to see them in their classrooms as much as possible. This is how we begin a dialog, knowing we can’t continue down the same path.
“This not about me,” Hite continued. “This is about all those young people we educate, and we all have to believe in them.”