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Interview with William Hite

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This is an edited transcript of Benjamin Herold's interview with William Hite.

Benjamin Herold: What impression did Philadelphia make on you during this process?

William Hite: I was surprised with the level of passion that was on display. … I was pleasantly surprised with the passion that was demonstrated by all the individuals there around making sure that there were quality schools in all of the neighborhoods, regardless of location of those neighborhoods, or historical experiences, or anything else. The fact that so many individuals wanted quality schools in their neighborhoods, that was impressive.

Herold: I think many people in Philadelphia are wondering – are you brave or are you crazy for taking on this assignment?

Hite: I think it is probably a little bit of both. However … the challenges in Philadelphia are not atypical to the challenges of many large, urban areas. And if you think of the experience now in Chicago, and New York, and L.A., many of the same problems persist. We’ve had those problems here in Prince George’s County and have really been able to use that time period as a way to think differently about how our young people should be educated.

Herold: What can you tell us about the kind of leader that Philadelphia is getting?

Hite: Well, I’m an individual who is very passionate about the education of all children. … That is a passion that I have to ensure that we meet [students'] civil rights and that we eliminate any of the social justice or injustice issues associated with this process we call education. 

I am a “servant leader,” and what I mean by that [is] it’s really important ... for me to hold individuals accountable, I understand and accept my responsibility to develop and build their capacity.  For every ounce of accountability requires an ounce of support. …

I have no problems with talking with multiple groups around what’s best for the young people in the city of Philadelphia, and I welcome those exchanges. I have strong opinions on that, and I love to engage with individuals who have ideas about that as well. …

I think it is really important that I’m willing to listen and I am willing to listen to a lot of individuals, and different individuals about what they think is wrong with or what are the opportunities for the Philadelphia School District. I think the more we can have those types of conversations, the better position we will be to move this work forward in a very deep, focused, and intentional way with the purpose of meeting the needs of all of the young people there in Philadelphia.

Herold: Many folks here really felt strongly that they wanted someone who knows the city intimately to lead the city schools. What message do you have for the folks who are concerned about having an outsider in the District’s top job?

Hite: My message would be to then help me understand some of the dynamics associated with the city. You’re right, I am not from the city of Philadelphia, which means that my learning curve will be on a steeper slope than most others. But by the same token, my ability to engage with individuals and my desire to hear from individuals and the fact that I consider myself a lifelong learner will only help me in that regard. I think that this is about having a commitment for the education of young people. I look forward to becoming a member of the community. …

Herold: I think that was one of the things that stood out for many during the public part of the superintendent search process was your patience and your deliberateness and your deference to the members of the public as they asked questions. How much of that comes from your Virginia roots?

Hite: I think a lot of it. I think a lot of that also comes from a mother and father who had strong work ethics, but also had strong beliefs around respect, and making sure that we do unto others as we want them to do unto us. I think that’s really important. I also think it creates the best scenario for individuals to engage on this conversation. I think this notion of conversing, or sitting down and really talking about feelings on a subject matter, especially when it relates to education, becomes extremely important.

Herold: How do you think your style will play here in Philadelphia?

Hite: I intend to listen attentively, but by the same token, it just can’t begin and end with listening. Then you have to construct a set of action plans around the types of things and outcomes you want to see from students. … I can do my share of talking as well. 

I don’t shy away from controversy, I don’t shy away from conversations about the rights of students and the need to make sure that all students have a very talented educator in front of them. Those things are really non-negotiable for me. …

Herold: Keeping in mind the magnitude of the challenges, fiscal and otherwise, that the District is facing right now, how would you try and balance that desire to listen with the desire to hit the ground running and aggressively tackle the big issues right from the start?

Hite: I think one of the things that’s really important there is making sure you really have an understanding of what’s been tried in the past. Not only what’s been tried, but what’s been tried and failed. And what has been tried and been successful. And the reasons for that. And I think the last thing that the District needs right now is a lot of new stuff and a lot of new actions and a lot of new initiatives. At the very least, there needs to be a comprehensive understanding of many of the plans that are in place right now, and the expected outcomes of those plans, and the degree to which they are either integrated or not. And then really trying to make public sense of those so that it’s not just me talking about what’s needed there, but it’s the whole city, if you will, so that we’re all conversing around the same things.

Herold: You mentioned that the variety of plans that are currently under way or on the table for discussion right now covers everything from school closings to decentralization and to budget gaps and so on. The details of those definitely seem like they have not been fleshed out, but the general direction of the District seems pretty clear, that desire to slash costs, close low-performing schools, to expand charters, and to really move away from big centralized bureaucracy to a more decentralized portfolio of schools. In your mind, is that direction for the District already set in stone?

Hite: I think some of those things have already started. I do agree with your analysis of that and some of those things have already left the station, if you will. However, I do think that even what you just described can be done with intention and focus and strategy. And I think that the degree to which those things are aligned so that the outcomes are clear and I think that to your point and not just naming all those things, but naming the reasons why. And naming the reason why as I heard of what you described, one is to operate more efficiently with the resources that are available.  The other is to make sure all students have quality options available within their communities or their neighborhoods. I think all of those things are important. Now, how they are defined becomes the subject of how people choose to talk about it. But I think that the reason why all of those things are important is just as critical a part of this conversion as the “what.”

Herold: And so do you think it would be fair to say, then, that the “what,” in terms of where the District is heading and the types of reforms that are under way, is more or less established, and the “how” is what you’re really be focusing on?

Hite: That’s correct.

Herold: Some have expressed a little bit of concern that you’re maybe a little bit tentative about that direction, about the transformation blueprint that the School Reform Commission has put out and the scope of the reforms that are on the table. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?

Hite: I don’t think that is a fair assessment. As I indicated, first you have to seek to understand what is being tried here, so what is it that you want to accomplish. Quite frankly, if there’s a budget book, and transformation strategy, and a CIP or a capital improvement plan, and all of those things are suggesting things are disconnected, in my opinion then there’s an opportunity to really start to integrate that around what we described earlier as the "what." I don’t think that those things should be done in silos or separate if you will. Those things have to be done more as an integrated part of the work of the city schools. And I think that to the degree you can do that, then it creates an environment where there’s a much a better understanding of what we’re attempting to accomplish.

Herold: At the other end of this spectrum, some have criticized the plan as a vehicle for privatization of public education and are still very resistant to the general direction. What message would you have for those who are concerned about the “what,” so to speak?

Hite: I do not have any information for those individuals and I have to have a much better understanding of all of the plans. And I am going through each of them as we speak.

However, one of the things I think is really important is everybody being clear about the “what.” And everybody being clear on operating more efficiently with fewer resources and making sure all students have access to high-quality programs and options within their neighborhoods. I think that if we can all agree on that, then the "how" really becomes a function of what people feel like they can accept. …

But if it is defined as privatization, if it is defined as decentralization, if it is defined as school closures, so those are three different things that suggest something else. However, if the grand “what” is, as I indicated before, efficiency and school options for all students, I think that if, to the degree that Philadelphians agree on that as the “what,” then we can begin the process to integrate all of those plans so they can actually speak to that.

Herold: Of the plans in documents from the School District that you’re reading now, I imagine the scariest is the District’s budget.

Hite: No question.

Herold: How bad is it?

Hite:  It’s bad. It’s really bad. …

It’s pretty significant in that when you cannot depend on forecasting an amount that is set in stone, that’s problematic. So part of that is really making some tough choices about what things cost and what will be the tradeoffs, and those are all very hard choices because inevitably you’re going to land on probably the best of a lot of bad choices. And there’s no way around that. And so individuals talked about the lack of nurse aid in one place. And in other places they talk about the lack of a different service. In another place they talk about losing individuals who were supporting classrooms. It’s a lot of poor and bad choices. And I am going to have to make some hard decisions about which choice is the best of a lot of bad choices.

Herold: With the news that has recently come out of Philadelphia City Council in approving the city budget and Harrisburg approving Pennsylvania’s state budget, it appears there are going to be some immediate, very challenging budget decisions thrust upon you. As the School Reform Commission and the District seek about $50 million in savings and cuts to go on top of the massive cuts that have already been made, and the $200 million or so in borrowing that’s already being planned, what role do you expect to have in figuring out where to find those cuts?

Hite: I plan to work with the SRC. I plan to be there next week and plan to work with the SRC in having those conversations about how we’re going to work through a process to get to those amounts, and we have to get there pretty quickly.  I suspect there are already some plans in place as a contingency in the event that the money that was requested was not allotted, and I’m pretty certain there are already some plans in place to look at or look across ... programs and structures to find those funds. It may also accelerate some of the decisions that were likely to be prolonged around school closures or other things. I don’t know that yet, but I think it's important to talk about with the SRC as quickly as possible.

Herold: Just about a month ago, you joined other Maryland public school leaders in publicly calling for a restoration of proposed state funding cuts that you argued would disproportionately affect the most disadvantaged students. Can you tell me about that?

Hite: No question about that, we had a legislative session that closed up before they approved the budget essentially. As a result, it defaulted to what was called a doomsday budget. And that doomsday budget would have cut another $60 million from our operating budget and another $30 million from our Baltimore County operating budget and something like $27 million from Montgomery County’s budget. And those happen to be the three districts that educate the majority of students who come from circumstances of poverty, the majority of students who are English language learners, the majority of the minority students. …

It was really important to us to send a clear message to not just the governor, but all the other legislators in and around the state of Maryland about how significant a cut that would be for our system.  As a result of that and the energy that produced, it did create some movement on the budget that was subsequently approved and those monies were restored.

Herold: Would you see that as part of your role here as superintendent of Philadelphia, to push for more state money?

Hite: Naturally, I think you have to push for more state money. I think you have to push for more money from every place you can. However, I also think it's equally important to make sure that we remove any skepticism that Harrisburg or City Council might have about how money is being spent in the District. And you have to first show that the monies that are received are spent within the categories for which they’ve been allotted, and they’re done in an efficient and effective manner, and that you have systems and processes and controls in place so that there’s not wasteful spending. I think that’s equally important to the advocacy around making sure there’s adequate funding for the city of Philadelphia.

Herold: What message would you would want to send to the School District’s five labor unions about how you intend to work with them?

Hite: Well, I think there has to be a collaborative process. I can only speak for my experience [in Prince George's County] with our five labor partners. ... We involved them almost at every level. As we’re discussing revenues and school budgets, I’m in a district where I have a group of employees, 17,000 of them, who have not received a cost of living or step increase in the past three years. And during that same period of time, they’ve been furloughed and we’ve lost 3,000 positions. You only can do that through a process that brings everyone to the table so that they are looking at what I’m looking at. Because they might have ideas as well about how to fill that gap, if you will. I think that the best way I know how to do that is to sit down and have those honest and forthright conversations about, "Here are the resources, here is what’s stipulated inside, where are there opportunities here to really begin to address the deficit."

Herold: What is your vision for teaching and learning in the School District of Philadelphia?

Hite: Thank you for asking that question because I think it is often the lead that we should lead with. And I want to see young people who are prepared to enter the 21st century, whether it’s through a pathway of work or a pathway of higher education. I think you do that by providing students with opportunities to engage in their learning process, where you have content that’s at a rigorous enough level that stretches them, but at the same token making sure that we’re educating the whole child. The whole child means that they still have opportunities for the fine arts. They still have opportunities for exercise, but by the same token, they’re still exposed to opportunities to problem-solve, think critically, and work collaboratively and communicate as much as they can.  And so I want to see classrooms where young people are engaged in their learning process, because where we know young people are engaged, they always do extremely well.

Herold: You mentioned earlier the possible looming of school closings, and the School Reform Commission has already put out a number that many people are already really scared of -- 40 closings to be announced this year, 24 more over subsequent years. Do you believe an action of that magnitude is going to be that necessary?

Hite: Here’s what I believe. I believe there’s 71,000 available seats that are not being used. I believe that the Philadelphia Eagles compete in a stadium that has about that many seats. I think that the money that is being earmarked on a day-to-day basis to light those classrooms, to heat those classrooms, to cool those classrooms ... I think that money can be better spent a different way. That’s what I mean by talking about the efficiencies that can be realized inside the system with making some very hard choices. I’m not suggesting that 71,000 seats need to be made available or to be eliminated from the District. But if you have that many seats, there’s no other way to have that conversation than to talk about school closures.

Herold: So how do you take on school closures, and finding $50 million more in cuts, and getting used to Philadelphia without turning the whole city against you on day one?

Hite: To the point, I think some of those things have already begun, and I think to the extent that those things can be integrated into a process around what we want young people to be exposed to inside the city becomes a really important part of the conversation. In other words, if we want our young people of Philadelphia to be exposed to X,Y,and Z, this is what X, Y, and Z cost. In order to meet that cost, here are the options, and these aren’t easy options. These are tough options. And here are the choices. And at some point those choices have to be finalized and you have to move forward. Whenever you have to go through a process like this, there are certain groups that will be exceedingly unhappy. People were unhappy here when we had to lay off 1,300 people, people were unhappy here when we had to close eight schools, not 40 schools. And so it is a part of that work, but I think to the degree that individuals have the opportunity to engage in the process, it only helps to provide them with the same information we are using to make those decisions.

Herold: You have been very generous with your time here today, Dr. Hite. You certainly have your work cut out for you. I want to thank you for joining us.

Hite: Thank you, sir.

Herold: How long is it going to be for us to get you as a Philadelphia Eagles fan?

Hite: That’s a loaded question. I will be remiss if I do not say that because I’m from the Virginia/D.C. region, I’ve always been a Washington Redskins fan, even when I was trying out for the Dallas Cowboys years ago. Nonetheless, I am a big sports fan.  Naturally, I’m a Michael Vick fan, being from Virginia Tech. So probably not long.  

Herold: Well, we hope both of you get a good start this year.  

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