Donning a Philadelphia Eagles baseball cap and green and black clothing, Dr. William R. Hite, Jr., walked the streets of Philadelphia in early February with thousands of other fans to celebrate the team’s first Super Bowl championship. He saw multi-generational families cheering with jubilation and pride, many clutching photos of family members since passed. As superintendent and CEO of the School District of Philadelphia, he knew his decision to close school on parade day was the right one.
With more than 70,000 students using mass transit to get to and from school, along with 255 bus routes impacted by the parade, Bill did not want any students to get stranded by the congestion. “I wanted our students to experience that history with their families,” he said, who traveled 90 miles to see his very first parade when the Washington Redskins won the 1988 Super Bowl led by Doug Williams, the first African-American starting quarterback to win a world championship.
“It was a city that felt very much together and a city which felt very much aligned around the success of their sports team,” Bill said about the Philadelphia parade. “Suppose we thought of taking care of each other and rooting for each other and supporting each other? Suppose we applied that to education and, specifically, to public education? What would it feel like if everyone was proud of, supportive of, rooting for and encouraging and motivating teachers that way, principals that way, children that way?”
As the leader of the eighth-largest school district in the country, where about half of the district’s students are Black and 20 percent are Latinx, Bill is working to build public support in the City of Brotherly Love. It’s been a tough go in Philadelphia — with ongoing budget deficits that brought in a state-governed School Reform Commission in 2001 in return for more state funds to plug the fiscal gap, which remained a challenge for years. A cheating scandal in 2011 implicated dozens of schools. When Bill arrived in 2012, the deficit forced the closure of 24 schools and layoffs of 20 percent of the workforce, including teachers, principals, counselors and nurses.
Bill said he wanted to establish a learning foundation in a city where only one-third of third-grade students are proficient in reading. He chose early literacy based on research suggesting that young people who are not reading on grade level by the end of third grade are more likely to require interventions, be designated for special-education services and are less likely to graduate high school.
“If we only had so much money and we could only do a few things, I was betting on improving the number of children reading at grade level, and sustaining this work, so money we are spending on interventions can be put back into the system,” Bill said.
Now, Philadelphia has more than 150 partners across the city working together to help double the number of grade-level readers in fourth grade by 2020, the largest such effort by a city in the country.
“They help us to do the types of things that we know matter, like make sure children attend school every day. We’ve equipped barber shops, salons, churches, even waiting rooms in jails with leveled text so children will have something to read. More individuals are reading with and mentoring young people. We’ve expanded our out-of-school time programs to be focused on literacy. We’re trying to aim everyone in the same direction.”
The district held 40-hour literacy institutes over the last three years to train K-3 teachers, implemented a consistent literacy progress-monitoring benchmark and assessment and provided leveled libraries in every classroom with 120-minute literacy blocks districtwide. Philadelphia’s adult literacy rate is one of the lowest in the country, so even adults and parents are learning to read to support students.
And those efforts are beginning to pay off. With two years of significant growth in reading proficiency, students with disabilities are making the lion’s share of improvements in students scoring at the advanced level. The district’s graduation rate also has increased for three straight years.
“We are taking all third graders to college campuses and all middle schoolers to manufacturing plants. We want our children to see themselves in those roles,” Bill said. “We want children to see themselves in college or a career and we want them to do that long before they finish high school.”
In the segregated Richmond, Virginia, schools Bill attended, he went through two schools before he saw his first White classmate. His experience flipped when his family moved to a predominantly White neighborhood during his high school years.
“People designated tracks for us,” said Bill. “Inequity was considered okay. There weren’t any other White kids in the wood working class. There were just the few us — the Black children.”
His own parents were first-generation high school graduates who instilled in him the importance of hard work, “and not allowing individuals to convince me that I couldn’t do something,” Bill said. “The notion around effort was instilled in us at a very young age. We weren’t allowed to take days off. You better act right in school or there would be consequences at home,” he said in his Virginia accent.
Saturday mornings in the Hite household were filled with the sounds of Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, a benefit of Bill’s father’s work with jazz groups as a drummer-for-hire. Young Bill took up the trombone in middle school. But it was his athletic performance in basketball, track and football that Bill says changed his future. He attended Virginia Tech on a football scholarship, earning a bachelor of science degree in secondary education. After graduation, he signed as a free agent with the Dallas Cowboys.
“Every one of those individuals could be doing the exact same thing or more or better, but did not have the access to the opportunities I had,” said Bill, who earned his master’s degree in educational leadership from the University of Virginia and his doctorate in education from Virginia Tech.
“I don’t want any child’s opportunity to be a product of their upbringing, their race, their ZIP code, their income, their ability to speak English or their disability. I don’t want any child to not have access to an opportunity because of those things,” Bill said. “It is something that drives me as I think about all children. That is something I must ensure — that our young people have the ability to pursue what they want to pursue, regardless of who they are or how fast they are, or whether or not they are an athlete, or a performer or they live in center city or north Philadelphia.”
After football, Bill worked as a gate agent and also did marketing work for a regional airline in Virginia. He started coaching football after work and liked it more than his day job. He began teaching and then served in assistant principal and principal roles at the secondary level. As an administrator, he was assistant superintendent of Cobb County School District in Georgia and then went north to Prince George’s County Schools in Maryland, where he was credited with bringing financial stability to the district as superintendent.
Bill said he once subscribed to the disruption theory of change, but his experience dealing with reduced funding has altered his views. “For too long, reform has really been about change,” Bill said. “Reform also is about doing evidence-based things well and sustaining that work over a period of time so that you actually see the efforts from that work and you see the outcomes that you’re trying to achieve.
“If you only have a few dollars, then you better spend them well on things that yield outcomes. Quite frankly, it forces you to focus, it forces you to prioritize,” said Bill. “My evolution has been a product of having to address financial challenges I wouldn’t wish on anyone. You can disrupt, which brings initial change. But then you have to bring people along, build capacity and help them work smarter.”
The reading initiative is growing roots that might be harder to sustain if Bill disrupted it for newer efforts every year. “We’re asking for feedback from teachers,” he said. “Here’s what we heard: don’t change it. It’s working. Let us get better. Don’t change it.”
Bill is listening. His 2017 performance evaluation earned distinguished ratings in district operations and financial management, communication and community relations and professionalism. Philadelphia teachers have their first contract in four years, including step increases and raises. And the district has, returned music to schools, initiated gifted assessments for every second grader and now administers the PSAT to every student in grades 9-11.
After six years of difficult financial choices, Bill is looking forward to seeing the fruits of their efforts. “I don’t want to do all of the hard things we’ve had to do in Philadelphia just to pick up and leave and hand it to someone else and say, ‘Okay, I got it to this place. You take it from here,’” he said. “I think about the common denominators at school districts that do well, and it’s been sustainability, continuity, structures and stability. That’s what I’m trying to provide here in Philadelphia — a level of stability. That’s what this is all about. We’re acknowledging the progress, but we’re nowhere near where we need to be. Until we get to that place, we’re going to continue to maintain the momentum.”
The 56-year-old father of two is busy being a grandfather. He listens to Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z and other hip-hop artists while he cycles, swims and lifts weight. He also golfs, which is how he met his wife.
The football fan who wanted his students to experience a Super Bowl parade is the same man who understands his role in the city, where race issues continue to make headlines.
“It is important to many of the children being educated in Philly to see a Black man in the role of superintendent,” Bill said. “I hope it provides for them the motivation, inspiration and encouragement that if they see me performing in this role, then they could, as well.”