By Diane Payne
Dr. Hite has wrapped up a decade of superintendency in Philadelphia. He received accolades from each Board member, the mayor, his administrative staff, and the media to name the most visible. Farewells rarely dwell on failures and mistakes so in each of these speeches, PowerPoints, and media articles Hite is a star. But just as District presentations and PowerPoints at each monthly Action Meeting do not represent the reality experienced on the ground, Hite’s departing accolades leave out the hurt and pain felt by teachers, students, and families impacted by his decisions.
Hite’s unflappable demeanor and ability to effectively navigate the political gauntlet served him well. The power structure of the District and city were happy with Hite. APPS hopes that the next Superintendent will receive praise from students, teachers, families, and public school advocates more than from the city’s power elites.
Here is what was left out by the Board, mayor, and media.
March 8, 2013
Hite began his career under the doomsday budget years of the School Reform Commission (SRC) and Republican Governor Tom Corbett. It became immediately apparent that the new Super would be aligned with the corporate dismantlers of urban public schools. Hite embraced the closure of 44 public schools (eventually whittling that down to a total of 23 schools in an attempt to make it more palatable)
The fallout of this beginning salvo shaped Hite’s reign and is felt to this day. The 100-year-old landmark and city treasure, Germantown High School is only one example of a bit of Philadelphia history left to rot. Another painful reminder is Bok High School turned into a haven for gentrification even as the surrounding community now suffers from school overcrowding.
There is no reporting on the schools that were left to absorb the students of the 23 shuttered buildings: the lack of resources and support Hite and his administration provided to accommodate additional students; children forced to cross dangerous neighborhood boundaries; and grade configuration changes left to struggling schools to figure out as a result of these closings. These schools are mourned to this day and research on school closures has shown that cost savings are not worth the disruption and chaos that results. Hite has never reported on any savings realized from these closures if any.
September 25, 2013
The death of a child, with no nurse on duty is the ultimate Hite fiasco. In 2011, 141 school nurses and counselors were laid off. A 12-year-old Bryant Elementary student, who suffered from asthma, became ill in school WHEN NO NURSE WAS ON DUTY. Two calls to the child’s parents failed to advise of the lack of a nurse. The child’s father believed a school nurse was assessing his child when in fact, this was a day Bryant had NO SCHOOL NURSE on duty. After school, the child’s father rushed her to the hospital where she died. Every school should have adequate nurse/student ratio coverage every single day.
May 21, 2014
Eight months later another 6-year-old Philadelphia student died in similar circumstances. This time at Jackson Elementary with NO SCHOOL NURSE ON DUTY. This child also suffered from asthma, became ill in school, was rushed to the hospital and died. The toxic conditions of city schools exacerbate breathing problems of children who suffer from asthma adding to the urgency of fully staffing every building with adequate certified school nurses. Another deadly Hite fiasco.
October 6, 2014
The cancellation of the PFT contract was a Hite fiasco that further severed trust and illustrated the lack of respect Hite and his administration had for the teachers and staff who provide the children of Philadelphia with an education and so much more. Although it was the SRC who mounted this unprecedented attack on the PFT, it was endorsed by Hite. The SRC called for a special meeting at 9:00 a.m. on Monday morning with only a tiny legal notice printed in the newspaper the day before the meeting providing only the most minimal notice required by law. The only witnesses to this debacle were a handful of APPS members who saw the notice and were able to attend the meeting on the short notice provided by the District. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers had no warning nor did the families of District students. A sneak attack by the SRC and supported by Hite.This cowardly attack followed Hite approved contract proposals asking beleaguered District staff to take pay cuts, give up health care provisions, and end mandated water fountains, private rooms for nurses and counselors, an adequate textbook supply and more.
“Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said it was a difficult decision to support the SRC’s action…” but support it he did. This laid the groundwork for a lack of trust and respect early in his tenure.
In the Hite administration, it was considered “fully vetted” and acceptable to hire a six-figure out-of-town applicant, Eric Becoates, to be the administrator of the Turnaround Network. Some of Becoates’ known career lowlights include: using school buses for personal transportation needs, racking up credit card bills for out-of-town conferences, using district time to conduct his personal business, and underestimating part of a budget by $15 million dollars. Becoates was hired anyway.
For years, the District contracted substitute teachers through the PFT. But in an out-sourcing and cost saving move Hite cancelled the PFT substitute contract in favor of an agency, Source4Teachers, to manage the District’s substitute needs. When Source4Teachers cut substitute compensation, the District found itself scrambling for subs leaving many schools with no substitute coverage. It took the entire 2015/16 school year before the Source4Teachers contract was canceled and another agency was found to manage this crucial and necessary coverage.
November 13, 2017
A first-grade child’s teacher at Comly Elementary notified the student’s parents that he was seen eating paint chips that fell from the ceiling. The child’s parents had their worst fears confirmed when testing revealed their child suffered from irreversible and devastating lead poisoning. When the Philadelphia Inquirer examined district records, they discovered thousands of unresolved environmental problems across the District. Even after a three-part Inquirer series blew the lid on the toxic environment in many schools, Hite denied and argued against the newspaper’s findings. This child’s irreparable harm caused by lead poisoning began Hite’s multi-year lack of honesty about toxic conditions in schools.
In a plan to co-locate the elite Science Leadership Academy (SLA) with the Ben Franklin High School (BFHS), extensive school renovations were undertaken. Ben Franklin is a struggling neighborhood high school while SLA is a special admit school that attracts students from all over the city. Renovations were underway throughout the 2018/19 school year while BFHS students and staff were in the building but before the SLA students moved in. Concerns from BFHS staff and the principal about the hazards of working in an active construction site went unheeded. Shockingly, some BFHS staff members were even hospitalized for breathing problems yet Hite failed to report on any of these problems and concerns to the Board or the public.
SLA moved into the unfinished building the following school year despite warnings from the BFHS principal that the building was not ready. When the families of the special admit students of SLA began to realize the dangerous and toxic conditions (including the SLA principal’s own son who was hospitalized for breathing conditions) a public outcry forced the Hite administration to move both Ben Franklin and SLA students and staff to temporary sites through the completion of the construction. This fiasco was rife with multiple layers of total incompetence and complete lack of transparency.
This project ended up an incredible $50 million over budget, a toxic health risk to all building inhabitants, a throw-away mentality directed at the neighborhood school’s staff and students, a complete disruption of two whole school communities, and the continued erosion of trust in the Hite administration. A 124 page District Inspector General Report confirmed the expensive and dangerous mess that went unreported by Hite.
October 30, 2018
A nine-year-old child from Hartranft Elementary collapsed and died suddenly from an unknown medical condition. Once again what stood out about this tragic incident, NO SCHOOL NURSE WAS ON DUTY. It is unknown if or how a school nurse may have intervened to save the life of this child and the others but it is an awful and tragic fiasco to never have the answer to that question.
A long-time teacher who spent three decades in two Philadelphia public schools identified with asbestos was diagnosed with incurable Mesothelioma. This disease is caused only by exposure to asbestos. The Hite administration’s legal team agreed to a cash settlement with this teacher but as she noted, the money may not even cover the health care costs she will accrue on her path to a certain and painful death.
Rolling school closures that affected 14 schools (and counting) followed the BFSH/SLA debacle. The Hite administration continued to confront these issues with a lack of full transparency and a lack of stakeholder engagement. Lawsuits were filed by the PFT, protests were held in front of schools by staff and school communities, and nothing changed in Hite’s responses. Illness, incurable disease, and even death failed to move Hite to become transparent, accountable, and inclusive in how he managed the toxic crisis in schools.
Once again, health and safety were ignored in favor of inept leadership decisions. Hite entrusted administrator, Karyn Lynch, Chief of Student Support Services, to make District health decisions despite Lynch having no medical training. Over the span of several months the Lynch blunders (protected by Hite) resulted in student HIPPA protected information being sent home on postcards, plans to place students on buses for immunization field trips without parental consent, repeatedly ignoring the certified medical professionals (school nurses), the resignation of the Doctor overseeing District medical needs and not informing the nursing staff (resulting in nurses unknowingly and unlawfully giving students medications.), and the further erosion of trust and accountability.
After countless stories of toxic schools, Hite went ahead with a $604,000 central office renovation which he explained addressed the need for functional space in his office. After public outcry, Hite only doubled down on “his” need for functional space while seemingly oblivious to students in toxic buildings.
In a dramatic and unprecedented step that shone a bright light on the many Hite fiascos, the District’s principals’ union, CASA 502, circulated a “no-confidence” petition citing a failure of leadership. This was an unprecedented step spearheaded by the normally quiet principal’s union. Nothing screams failure more than school based leaders with no confidence in the top administrator. CASA president, Robin Cooper, even stated that Hite fostered a “hostile work environment”!
Hite testified in his presentation to the Board of Education that a safe solution to COVID ventilation concerns, as the District prepared for a return to in-person learning, were window fans with gauges to measure air quality. The suspicions of school staff and communities about the gauges to measure air quality were well-founded. Pictures of standard home window fan units with NO SPECIAL GAUGE began circulating once again catching Hite in a lie. In this Hite fiasco, he was allowed to avoid accountability by simply stating he “mis-spoke” about gauges that measured air quality. Fangate (as it quickly became known) could have had deadly outcomes if Hite was allowed to return students in the middle of COVID with flimsy window fans as a safety measure.
Teachers protested the District’s demand to return to unsafe buildings by working outside in the cold. As Hite’s staff worked remotely and safely, the only recourse school based staff members felt open to them was to refuse to put the health and safety of their students and themselves on the line.
BELL SCHEDULE: The beginning of the 2021 school year had an ongoing list of system failures. Hite failed to take responsibility but rather blamed failures as National problems or individual school failures. This school year began with a change of bell schedule that left parents and families scrambling to adjust to new schedules. Not to mention that change included a 7:30 start time for high school students that flies in the face of all current research about high school start times even as Hite gives lip service to following best practices.
BUS DRIVER SHORTAGE: Although it is true that the bus driver shortage is a nationwide problem, what happens under the Hite administration is his glib assurances to Board members of all the safeguards he has in place while principals in schools and besieged families report otherwise. Hite went so far as to say families could call him directly if experiencing busing issues. No one questions the veracity of a Hite statement like this so the fiascos keep coming.
TRASH PICK-UP: Hite linked trash pick-up to the same driver shortage. The pictures of students returning to school buildings with massive piles of trash in the school yards garnered public outcry and only then did Hite move to address the unsanitary and depressing conditions children experienced on their return to in-person school.
NURSES AND COVID: Nurses testified at Board of Education meetings about additional duties related to COVID that makes them prioritize and choose what to accomplish in each school day. Once again putting student health and safety at risk.
STUDENTS WITH NO FOOD: At the September Board of Education Action Meeting, Hite gave his usual presentation but failed to provide the Board with any information about the lack of food for students at one elementary school. Mitchell Elementary school received NO FOOD DELIVERY THAT DAY AND WAS TOLD BY CENTRAL ADMINISTRATION THAT NO FOOD SERVICE STAFF WOULD BE AVAILABLE. Hite’s staff left a District school to figure out for themselves how to feed 467 students and Hite failed to disclose this at the meeting. The next day, Hite attempted to deny that no food was delivered.
UNSAFE SCHOOL CONDITIONS: Staff at a District school refused to enter the building. Instead, they worked remotely outside the building to protest toxic asbestos conditions inside and a lack of district transparency about what is happening with the remediation and status.
The shuttering of school libraries staffed with certified teacher librarians (CTLs) began before the Hite reign. Under Hite, the trend continued even as Hite tried to say “he” didn’t shutter libraries; principals made that choice. But principals have been tasked with cutting an arm or leg with each budget season; this is a false premise to publicly put library closures on the shoulders of principals. At the beginning of the Hite reign, there were 43 CTLs in the District and today there are 4. Hite willingly oversaw the final dismantling of a research proven support in improving student outcomes while deflecting blame. Generations of children are graduating from Philadelphia public schools with NO LIBRARY access.