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Management in Practice

How the Philadelphia Schools Confronted Systemic Racism

Education is the great equalizer—except when school systems are themselves shaped by systemic racism. William Hite, Philadelphia’s superintendent of schools, describes how the district sought to create an inclusive process for rooting racism out of its structures.

William Hite at a press conference in 2014

William Hite at a press conference in 2014

AP Photo/Philadelphia Inquirer, Rachel Wisniewski

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 the background. In between virtual meetings, I listened to his brothers, to the mother of his children, and to the others who spoke. Then I hurried to the school district headquarters where my administrators had ended their march protesting the murder. I hadn’t been able to participate because of the meetings, but I wanted to support them and to make sure that they knew that this was also important to me.

Out of nowhere, they asked me to address the crowd. I shared with them that I’m a product of a segregated school system in Richmond, Virginia. I was remembering what my dad and my grandparents used to say about what we could do, where we couldn’t go, what door we had to enter through. It was very emotional for me.

I have been able to elevate to the position of superintendent of one of the largest school districts in the country, but we still have a justice system that treats individuals who look like me differently. I still have to worry because of the color of my skin about things non-Black males get to take for granted. I had no explanation for that other than racism.

“We’re going to do our part to ensure that we’re not constructing or manifesting or sustaining systems that are racist to our families or our students.”

I said, “You know what? We’re going to do our part to ensure that we’re not constructing or manifesting or sustaining systems that are racist to our families or our students.” That’s when I chose to write the letter—an anti-racism declaration that was a commitment that I was making as a leader.

I talked about how, as a district, we’re going to work to ensure that young people are not judged by the color of their skin or where they live or where they come from or how much money their parents make or if they identify as LGBTQ. I called out all forms of inequity. I particularly called out racism and caught some flak for that, by the way. I did it because in this country racism is the root of all other forms of oppression.

Q: Did you worry about political pushback?

I did. I mean, that’s why other things I had written up to that point were a lot more censored and balanced. But I was reading everybody else’s statements, and they all started to sound the same. They were creating solutions to problems that they didn’t even understand, and they weren’t mentioning race. That’s when I thought it was extremely important to do something different.

Q: What actions came out of the statement?

We created what we call the Equity Coalition. I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t a top-down approach, so we sent out an open call to anyone who wanted to join a participatory, inclusive group to create a set of recommendations around what our equity work should be. Some 300 people took part, including teachers, administrators, custodians, cafeteria workers, hall monitors, bus drivers—any individual who wanted to be in the coalition.

Q: Top down can be fast. It can allow for decisive action. Why not use that approach?

People were telling us at the time, “You keep talking about race and inequity, but then it doesn’t feel like it’s responsive to what we actually are experiencing on the ground.”

If you think about the job titles that I just listed—our cafeteria workers, bus drivers, bus driver aids, climate staff, custodians—they have children in the schools. They live in our communities. And with a top-down approach, they are the ones whose voices are not included in whatever initiatives are implemented. I wanted to make sure their voices were a part of this. I wanted this notion of equity to be something that belongs to everyone in the organization.

The Equity Coalition created an equity definition so that when we say “equity” at the School District of Philadelphia, individuals understand what that means. They created an equity framework and a set of recommendations including an office of diversity, equity, and inclusion and equity fellowships for students, teachers, and staff who want to drive change, both of which we’ve implemented.

The effort has begun to take on an energy and a life of its own within the organization. It has really taken hold. Not to say that we are exactly where we should be—a lot of issues, including the pandemic, have made the work challenging. But it has become extremely important to the individuals who developed the framework. And it has been adopted by the board of education.

I wrote the anti-racism statement and kicked off this process. But now it’s owned by teachers, staff, parents, and students. I see it as really important work that has to continue regardless of who’s in the superintendent’s seat, and it will continue because it was participatory and inclusive. That makes me optimistic—even while I understand this is transitional work which inevitably means things are not going to roll out of the block perfect and will need to evolve over time.

Q: Describe some of the challenges you’ve already seen.

We were asking our principals to lead conversations about race, racism, and anti-racism. These are hard conversations. Many principals made clear they didn’t know how to do it. In a meeting with them, I said, “None of us really know how, and it’s going to be difficult.” I then shared an example.

I’d sent out a series of letters to the principals and the teachers talking through this work and how I wanted them to engage with their young people. One teacher had responded to me. She wrote that she had taught in the district for many years; she felt my suggesting articles and books was essentially accusing her of being privileged and racist. I read the email to the principals. They were horrified.

Then I read my response back to her, which respected her position but also talked about why the discomfort of those of us who are privileged—I’m privileged to be in the role that I’m in and she’s privileged to be in her role—is a proof point that we need to have these conversations.

Welcoming her perspective opened up a dialogue between that teacher and myself, which then allowed us to talk about the issues and the challenges without making it about my race against her race.

The principals were appreciative because they were looking for perfect responses and, quite frankly, there are no perfect responses. When I first read the teacher’s email, I could feel my heart beating faster. I was angry. Then I stopped for a second to just think about that educator who had never experienced what we were asking all of our educators to do.

That’s the part of the evolution that I think is important—teaching individuals how to talk through their emotions in a way that isn’t attacking others but is recognizing feelings in order to talk through discomfort, talk through privilege. Teaching them to talk through savior complexes that individuals come with, not intentionally, but nonetheless are part of their work and behaviors. Teaching individuals how to have those conversations was a challenge and remains a challenge, but as we move forward it’s evolving, and more and more individuals are getting better at it.

Q: I can imagine the initial impulse of a school district developing an anti-racism program might be to focus on the students and developing an anti-racism curriculum. Why put such emphasis on teachers and the district as a whole?

Naturally, part of this work is doing a systemic review of our curriculum to be more culturally and linguistically inclusive, but it’s not the only part. We think policy is foundational to making educational equity a reality because it serves as the overarching governing tool to support equity infrastructure.

One of the central goals of education reform movements dating back to the early 1800s has been to make the public good of education accessible for all. Yet here we are still grappling with ways to make it accessible and equitable for all students, especially those who are coming from the most marginalized communities.

“There are structures in place—our hiring and promotion practices, how we deal with behavior of young people and how that manifests itself in a disproportionate way—that create inequities.”

The core issue is that the system that we want to be the great equalizer is also the same system creating the inequities. Until we deal with that, we’re not going to get to the reform, particularly around educational equity, that we’ve been looking for. So it has to be more than just young people learning about anti-racism.

There are structures in place—our hiring and promotion practices, how we deal with behavior of young people and how that manifests itself in a disproportionate way—that create inequities. They have been in place for years. Our equity lens helps us to review, refine, and develop all of our core policies that govern the outcomes of the district.

Q: All of this has been happening during a pandemic. How has the district navigated that?

It has been tough. We’ve served some 11 million meals since returning in person this fall. Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve also had to purchase a hundred thousand pieces of technology. We’ve had to get individuals connected to online resources. We’ve had to train instructors to use technology that they weren’t familiar with. We had to do contact tracing and set up vaccine clinics. We had to pay for tests. We’ve had to get our buildings ready then convince the public that they are safe for the young people to return to.

The hardest thing of all was watching the impact of remote learning, and all of the emotions that have come along with that. Then the gun violence in our city that is impacting many of our young people on their way to and from school.

It has become almost impossible. I don’t think about it from that perspective because, quite frankly, that just creates a level of anxiety that I choose not to engage in. I think about, “What’s the problem we’re trying to solve in order to ensure that our young people get into schools as safely as possible?”

With few exceptions, schools are the safest place for most of our children, the place where over seven hours a day they have shelter and access to meals. They have access to individuals who care for them. They have access to their medicine, and they have access to opportunities to engage with other young people socially while they are also learning to read, write, and do mathematics. Ensuring they have access to all that is the essential task.

Q: One impact of the pandemic is that that school district has such a shortage of bus drivers that you’re paying parents to bring their children to school.

Yes. Eighty percent of our bus services are contracted. Our contractors were expecting and committed to 1,100 drivers; they have about 650 drivers. So we reimburse $300 per month for a parent that chooses to transport his or her child to school. In addition, all 7th- through 12th-graders get passes for public transportation. And we’re providing passes to parents who are choosing to use the public transit system to bring their kids to and from schools.

About 10,000 individuals are signed up to bring their kids to and from school. We’re also using other vendors—car and van services—to reduce the numbers of young people who are unable to get to and from school in a timely manner.

The bus driver issue is part of a broader problem. It’s also a food delivery issue. It’s a trash pickup issue. It’s a supply chain issue. Workforce issues, supply chain issues, they are real.

Individuals who may have once chosen to do this type of work are choosing to do other things that, quite frankly, don’t put them in the middle of a contained space with 30 to 40 kids. We’re seeing the same thing with substitute teachers, school nurses, and other support staff.

Q: How do you balance all of the competing issues?

Our board of education went through governance training that started with the question, “What’s the purpose of the board?” They started to answer by listing things like approving contracts, hiring and supervising the superintendent, and talking to the public. Eventually they landed on improving student outcomes. Seeing that as their purpose led to the question of how.

They then established five academic goals and four guardrails, which are conditions that need to exist to get to the academic goals. One of the guardrails is addressing racist practices.

With those goals and guardrails, a board meeting becomes a performance management exercise. That framework has been invaluable in navigating the current conditions. No matter how challenging things are—COVID, gun violence, the driver shortage, supply chain issues—the goals and guardrails remain the focus.

Some of the issues are hard. We’ve had to change timeframes when we couldn’t deliver a state test because of the pandemic, for instance. We’ve had to do things differently when we don’t have enough bus drivers, but all of that is understood to be things we must deal with on the way to ensuring that our children are achieving.