Philadelphia Superintendent on Leading Through a Financial Crisis and Raising Expectations For Students
William Hite arrived in Philadelphia in 2012, to a school district in financial distress. A year later, Hite and the then-appointed School Reform Commission (the equivalent of the school board when the district was under state control) sparked outrage when they closed about two dozen schools and laid off nearly 20 percent of the district's staff.
The district's financial woes are no longer the biggest headlines from the City of Brotherly Love—though those days are not fully in the rearview mirror for one of the nation's largest school systems: the district still has a long-term revenue problem, and a 2017 report estimated that it would need about $4.5 billion to bring its aging school buildings up to code.
And that's not the only thing that's changed since Hite arrived. As of last year, the district is no longer under state control, with the nine school board members now appointed by the city's mayor. [Note: At the board's meeting on Thursday night, a group of activists shut down the proceedings and questioned the board's legitimacy, after a vote to require metal detectors at all high schools.]
On Tuesday, the district touted progress since 2015, including that it had doubled the number of Advanced Placement and dual enrollment courses, and that its graduation rate had increased to 69 percent—still lower than the state's overall graduation rate for 2016-17, which was 86.6 percent.
Education Week spoke with Hite earlier this month about his tenure, continuing challenges the district faces, bright spots, and advice for other urban district leaders confronting conditions like the ones he encountered when he first arrived in Philadelphia.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
EW: When you went to Philadelphia in 2012, the district was in a financial crisis. Massive school closures followed a year later, and for years afterwards the story was one of a district tethering on the financial brink. That's no longer the main story line. How did you get from there to here?
WH: One of the things you learn very quickly when you're broke is how to prioritize and how to focus. If you only have a few dollars to spend, theoretically, you want to make sure they are going to be spent where they can make the highest impact.
Immediately, we began with putting the financial house in order, which required many individuals to sacrifice. Our teachers sacrificed, our students sacrificed, our administrators, our support staffs. Our maintenance and custodial staffs rewrote their contracts to give money back to the school district each month. Our teachers went without a contract for five years, and we had to close a large number of schools. We laid off 20 percent of the workforce.
At the same time, we had to advocate at the state level and at the local level for more resources. But we also had to show that we would be fiscally responsible with those resources because there was a thought that in the past individuals may not have been as fiscally responsible as they should have been.
We started simultaneously working on getting the financial house in order and then we started focusing on making sure children could graduate with the skills they needed in order to be successful. The starting point for that was in early literacy. We made a point to focus in the early literacy space.
EW: What's the story line from Philadelphia in March 2019?
WH: One thing that I [recently] shared with the Chamber [of Commerce] was that I think the ratings agency, Moody's, said it best: that for the first time in more than a decade, Philadelphia bonds are now at investment grade. Since 2012, we've had three credit upgrades from the bond-rating agencies.
[Moody's] talked about local control being a factor. Not just local control in and of itself, but the fact that it's more individuals who are claiming responsibility for providing the resources necessary to educate children. They also highlighted fiscal management, where we were able to control spending over a period of time. We went from being very unpredictable in that space to being predictable. And in that period of time, our funding sources provided an additional $700 million in revenue both from the state and from the city.
EW: What does that mean for the children in your district?
WH: What it meant for children was the ability to purchase textbooks or instructional materials; the ability to put a nurse in every school building; it meant the ability to have a counselor in every school building.
Some people would say, 'of course we have those things.' But in Philadelphia we actually didn't have those things because we had schools without nurses and counselors.
It also has allowed us to begin focusing on the social-and-emotional learning aspects for young people—like the conditions that have to exist for children to learn. We have focused intensely on developing a set of strategies around young people and families that have been exposed to trauma. First [it's] recognizing those things, and the second part of that is equipping individuals to address those issues.
The story now is one of a district that's making progress. We have a long way to go, but the fact [is] that we've made progress financially. We've made progress with respect to schools that are higher performing.
We have fewer schools that are low-performing. We have more children graduating, we have more children reading on grade level, and we have more attending school each day.
EW: There is still some inequity in the distribution of resources. How do you make schools more equitable for students who are not as affluent or whose parents may not be able to provide (supplemental) PTA funding?
WH: We direct it through the monies that we have discretion over. We call it a "system of great schools," and that started as a mechanism to hand over schools to other providers or to replace the staffs. Now that's evolved to where we actually go in, and the schools do self-studies, and then make a set of recommendations.
Those recommendations are then implemented, and they come with resources and supports. We do that based on schools that are educating the largest percentages of children that have additional needs. We also do that based on the schools that are the lowest-performing over a period of time.
We still have gaps. In cities like ours, we are going to continue to have gaps. ...Our equivalent to [alumni or PTA funding] is modernizing over 250 pre-K through 3rd grade classrooms as a part of our literacy strategy. We focus on those schools that would not have the alumni association who would come in and then would provide for some pretty significant investments at the school.
Part of that challenge moving forward is that, in addition, we still need more children reading on grade level. But we also have an infrastructure that's old and aging and needs a lot of work. We had a facilities analysis done several years ago and it identified $4.5 billion in deferred maintenance needs. Granted that's only to bring it to code, that's not to bring it to being a sufficient educational environment.
We understand that as a district, and we have to prioritize that work. We have now invested $22 million just to deal with lead paint. We also then spent another $32 million to modernize classrooms. We have made new investments in technology, and we have replaced all of the water fountains with filtered hydration stations. [Note: A Philadelphia Inquirer special report last year explored the toxic conditions—including exposure to lead dust and asbestos—in some of the city's school buildings.]
Every other year, we would do $200 million in bond investments just to focus on the capital needs of schools. But at $200 million every other year, it will take a long time to address $4.5 billion in deferred maintenance.
EW: And that's a challenge not just in Philadelphia.
WH: It's a challenge in all old cities. Absolutely it is.
EW: You've now surpassed the average tenure of an urban superintendent. What advice do you have for superintendents who are facing issues similar to those you faced when you arrived in Philadelphia?
WH: I used to think of this whole notion of reform as just going in and doing something different. I think about this differently now, and partly because of the financial state that the district was in. Remember I said when you're broke it forces you to focus? I think too often in education, we try out a lot of things and see what works as opposed to trying to do fewer things really well.
We started with early literacy because we thought that would have the highest yield in terms of return on investment.
In talking with teachers on a panel one day, we asked them for some feedback, and I'll never forget it. We started the [early literacy] proposal, and we were going to rotate the coaches from the first cohort of schools to the second cohort of schools in year two, and then to the third cohort of schools in year three. I remember talking to the teachers in cohort one almost in the middle of the year, and they said, 'whatever you do, don't change this focus, and don't take the resource away because it's taken us some time to learn this. Now that we're convinced, you can't just pull the support out and put it somewhere else.'
I think about this now as being very clear about what you're trying to accomplish, and then driving at that thing. And that thing shouldn't be any more than one or two things.
For us, it was actually four things. It was finance, literacy, graduation, and talent. Everything that we do is around those four things. That's number one.
The other thing is, no matter how bad the news is, just be honest... because by and large, people will try to help you figure it out. However, if you keep it away from the individuals, then it's like 'how did we get here?'
We do an annual budget because we have to by law. But we do a five-year financial plan because we want people to see what five years out would look like if in fact we don't fix the revenue problem or the expenditure problem.
We ask for people's ideas on that. The school redesign was to say, 'hey if you don't like what our turnaround strategy is, you're welcome to present something to us.' And people have, and some of those have been very successful.
So, no matter how big the problem is or how hard it is to talk about, you have to talk about it, and you have to be transparent.
And then the third thing is that we are at our core educators. Most of us started as teachers. I did, which meant that I was responsible for that group of students in front of me. As superintendents we have to think beyond just the group of students or families or schools in front of us. There is a larger public that has to be a part of the conversation: the funders, philanthropy, business, advocates, the communities. It's all of those individuals that you also have to form relationships with.
EW: Mayoral control. As a superintendent what does that mean for you? How has local control impacted the district?
WH: I think about it as the promise of local control. Moody's actually talked about local control as a positive thing because now you don't have the city pointing to the state or the state pointing to the city to say, 'they are responsible for the funding.' Now this mayor, this city council have said we know what our responsibility is to ensure that schools have what they need in order to educate children. That's a good thing—understanding that we can't let the state completely off the hook. We still will need funding from the state.
The mayor and I meet monthly, and he has appointed nine very good school board members to the school board who are engaging with the community on a regular basis in multiple ways.
The benefit of local control is that now we are thinking about the universe of assets and resources and how we can direct those assets and resources to the needs of schools and communities. We now have social workers in 22 schools that are funded through [the city's] behavioral health. We are talking about the ways to share the procurement, we are talking about ways in which to think about where we have after-school programming that becomes a part of the parks and recreation program. Now we have parks and recs [adjusting] hours on the days that schools are not in session, so that children will have a place to go and will be fed.
Those are the types of things that if you think about the universe of assets and resources and support systems differently than all of us replicating those things, there is a lot more available to aim at areas of the city we weren't able to before simply because we were not coordinated.
EW: What would you say is the biggest challenge right now?
WH: The five-year plan still shows that we are going to need additional revenues. That's always something that we are going to have to think about moving forward.
I think more broadly it is maintaining our focus. I still don't think people have high enough expectations for our young people. That has always been a challenge for me, and I think in cities like Philadelphia we have to ensure that all children are exposed to grade-level content and not content based on a perception of their circumstances. I think that's really important. The other thing is our facilities. That's a gigantic challenge.
EW: What would you say are the continuing challenges for urban school systems, beyond Philadelphia?
WH: For urbans, I would say facilities are a challenge. Another challenge is dealing with the broader discourse around race and inclusion and rights and civility. I think that also presents a challenge for individuals who are standing in front of children each day, particularly children that are coming from diverse backgrounds. We have to create a space for young people to talk about their challenges.
I think the trauma that children are exposed to in their communities...and I think more and more children have significant needs—needs that go beyond many district's ability to address those. I think longevity of leadership, and I would say boards that are working on the right stuff.
I think governance is thinking about how to construct policies to deliver on the board's goals, and it's not to have a substructure that's managing the district. I do think that continues to be a challenge in districts across the country.
EW: What's a 'good news' story from Philadelphia?
WH: You missed an opportunity to see young people in the Kensington area of Philadelphia come together to talk about [the opioid crisis]. It was the first annual student summit to talk about the challenges in their community with respect to opioid use. It was inspiring. It was children from all of the schools in the affected area, and I was inspired by the many young people who thought that it was only them or their family that had the issue, but then multiple children were talking about how they'd lost loved ones—whether they were siblings or parents—to the epidemic; how they were afraid of individuals who were clearly using; how they didn't know what to do. And then talking with each other about those issues really helped to encourage them to create a plan to feel safe and supported.
The other thing was that we had Live Nation donate 25 cents on each ticket they've sold for concert tickets in Philadelphia to create opportunities for children to compose, write, arrange, and perform music. They've helped us fund studios in four of our high schools. The most recent one was done at Strawberry Mansion High School that was up for closure and now has a program that's motivating children to come to school every day.
I would say broadly the work that we have done with literacy and who is included in that work is a bigger story. The fact that there is a Read By 4th citywide strategy, where people know exactly what to do and where to plug in to an educational initiative to ensure that children are reading on grade level by the time they are 8 years old.
We have barbershops, and hair salons, and the free library, and philanthropy, and community organizations, and the United Way and the city—everybody is a part of this initiative—where they are training parent ambassadors who are helping other parents with the things they can do at home to help their children learn to read.
EW: Anything else you'd like to add?
WH: As educators we can never stop learning and growing and developing. There's still a lot to do in Philadelphia. I still have a lot to learn as a superintendent. I think being in that posture also helps, and it helps me to consider other points of views or to research evidence-based practices or to talk about things that I or my team can do to get better.
Photo caption: Philadelphia Superintendent William R. Hite, center, interacts with students as they build model homes for a load-bearing structures unit during Karthik Subburam's engineering class at Science Leadership Academy at Beeber on January 28, 2014 in Philadelphia. --Photo by Jessica Kourkounis for Education Week