William Hite is a 2005 graduate of The Broad Academy, the predecessor program to The Broad Center at Yale SOM’s Fellowship for Public Education Leadership.
Q: Would you give us a snapshot of the Philadelphia school district?
We serve 200,000 students in 223 public district-run schools and public charter schools. We have 20,000 employees and a budget of $3 billion.
We are the poorest big city in the country, with 26% of the population here in deep poverty. We serve 100% of children free and reduced lunches simply because our percentages of children who qualify are so high that we just stopped doing the survey and feed everyone.
We are a majority-minority system, which means that about 70% of our children are either Black or Latinx. About 11% are Asian and 7% are White. Additionally, we have about 150 languages spoken in the school district, so it’s very diverse.
Q: You’ve been a teacher and a principal as well as a superintendent. How do you approach leadership?
After college, I returned to my hometown to teach. One of the things that I found most important was that the relationships I established with young people allowed them to trust that I had their best interests at heart. Whatever I asked of them, no matter how tough, was about putting them in the best position to excel.
That has carried through in how I deal with everyone. In a city like Philadelphia—a big labor city steeped in politics and where the liberal city’s school system revenue comes from a conservative state legislature—establishing relationships of trust helped me to build credibility that allowed me to stay here through some very tough circumstances.
I think it’s important to consider not just the technical aspects of the leadership, but the relational aspects. How you talk to people. How you listen. How you provide empathy and how you portray that you are interested in solving problems that individuals submit. Those relational qualities that were so important from my earliest days teaching are still part and parcel of how I approach the work today.
Q: Last year you wrote an open letter to the school district community that grew into an anti-racism program. What led you to do write it
With COVID, we were all virtual. We saw that was traumatic for many of our young people and for our city. Our leadership team had begun some general equity work; then we had the horrendous murder of George Floyd. It was really the last straw.
On the day of the service for George Floyd, I had the TV on in
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