After a tumultuous start to the school year in Philadelphia, with delayed buses, labor shortages and trash piling up around schools, some parents and teachers were relieved to hear the news earlier this week that Superintendent William Hite plans to step down next year.
Andrea Gaskins-West McMichael, a Philadelphia teacher and parent of two students, said it’s time for someone new to lead the city’s school district.
“There have been so many circumstances that have happened over the past few years that have exposed some of the differences, some of the inequities between schools in the district — everything from facilities to materials to funding. It’s time to just bring in somebody new that can maybe look at this from a different lens, bringing a different perspective. Hopefully bring about some change in all of this,” she said.
Others were reluctant to blame Hite for reopening challenges, which have affected school districts nationwide.
Brandon Archer, who was a senior at Julia R. Masterman High School last year and now studies at Swarthmore College, spent his last year of high school mostly online, but was cautious about putting all of the blame on Hite for virtual learning. He said it was “impactful seeing a Black man lead a large school district.”
“It is an extremely difficult job when the future of over 200,000 kids is in your hands every day. I do think that I’m excited for the new direction of leadership. But in choosing the new leader there needs to be community and student involvement,” he said.
Hite, who has led the Philadelphia school district for nearly 10 years, announced late Monday that he would leave in August 2022, staying on this school year to allow for a “full and complete” search for his replacement. Hite is the latest superintendent nationwide to leave during the unprecedented educational disruptions of the pandemic, following high-profile departures in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. He said he had no plans to seek another job as superintendent, and he will remain in the area. He said his replacement should love the city.
At a press conference Tuesday, the Philadelphia Board of Education promised a “robust” public process to find the next superintendent. The search will begin immediately, members said.
Some parents, students and elected officials in the city have called for that selection process to be centered on the input of families and the greater community.
Jemille Duncan, a senior at Multicultural Academy Charter School, said he hopes the process is transparent and student focused.
“Given all that’s happened the past two years with the pandemic I don’t blame him,” he said of Hite’s decision to leave. “I understand how arduous it has been to be the head of a school district so large and going through so much throughout the pandemic. I think it’s about resources and funding.”
He added, “Whoever they pick should be open to feedback. And having a superintendent that is humble enough to listen to students whose his or her decisions will directly impact I think is one of the best qualities one could have for any superintendent.”
Hite has been credited with bringing some stability to a chronically underfunded district charged with educating mostly low-income children, often with significant needs. In the spring of 2020, when schools across the country closed, Hite took Philadelphia’s public schools virtual. Last year, after months of remote learning, he pushed to get students back into classrooms in phases, beginning with early learners.
But teachers protested and threatened to boycott over ventilation and unsafe building conditions. A third-party mediator ultimately sided with Hite that buildings were safe.
This year, after reopening all schools on Aug. 31, the district has faced a firestorm of criticism after shortages of bus drivers, food service workers, nurses, classroom aides and other essential workers caused chaos in the first weeks of the year.
Five public schools and part of a high school also were temporarily shut down because of COVID cases barely two weeks into the school year. Parents complained the policy to close schools was too stringent. The guidance from the health department has since changed.
Sherice Sargeant, a parent of two district students, thought the district handled the return to school “too fast and inappropriately.”
“The parents’ voice was not considered. And I think the district needs to get back to that old slogan of ‘parents are partners’ versus just pushing information for us to do. Since they formed the new Board of Education to allow parents to speak in the best interest of their children, there seems to be a disconnect at 440 [North Broad].”
Gaskins-West McMichael said she wants more connectivity between the district and the teachers in the decision-making of finding a new superintendent.
“Being a teacher, a lot of times we find other information after the parents and sometimes both. I would like to see clear communication with the staff of the buildings and someone who kind of sees the differences and is making adjustments to address those differences.”
Denise Ortiz, who has two children in the district, a fourth grader at Richmond Elementary and a seventh grader at AMY 5 at James Martin Middle School, was affected by one of the school closures. Students at Richmond returned to school Monday.
She said: “Everything is not going where he said they were going — everything is going the opposite. He was in such a rush to open the schools.”