For Hite and Prince George's schools, a smooth year, for a change

Prince George's County School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. in 2009.
Prince George's County School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. in 2009. (Gerald Martineau - The Washington Post)
By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 28, 2010

When John E. Deasy, the high-profile schools superintendent in Prince George's County, resigned abruptly in September 2008, many thought it spelled yet another whiplash change in direction for the school system, which had gone through four leaders since 1999.

Instead, the county chose continuity, hiring Deasy's number two, William R. Hite Jr., for the top post. At the end of his first full year on the job, Hite has proved a steadying hand, calm where Deasy was fiery and conciliatory where Deasy took a hard line, elected county officials and educators say.

Hite has not had the money for ambitious new programs. But many observers say that they've been impressed with his ability to navigate the county's treacherous political waters while focusing on its 127,000 public school students and that a year of relative tranquillity for a school system that has seen so much tumult in recent years may be success in itself.

"He came onboard at a time when things were under a real upheaval," said former school board member Judy Mickens-Murray. "He seemed to put his ego aside" in not radically revising his predecessor's initiatives, she said.

Hite wasn't a typical hire for a district as complex as Prince George's, the second largest in Maryland. He had never been the chief of a school system before Deasy resigned for a job with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation amid a darkening fiscal picture and questions about his doctorate. The school board conducted a national search but decided that an outsider would be another setback for a system that had undergone so many changes. Hite, who signed a contract to stay until 2013 with an annual base salary of $250,000, promised to remain as long as the board wanted him.

At 49, Hite has taken a winding path to the top. The Richmond native played football at Virginia Tech -- his Upper Marlboro office is crammed with sports memorabilia -- and studied marketing and education. After graduation, he got a job in Richmond as a marketer for an airline. One of his high school coaches asked him if he'd be interested in helping on the field. He got sucked in, coaching football and softball part time.

"I was the mentor, coach and father figure for many students," he said. "I really enjoyed that."

The next year, he quit his marketing job and moved into education, becoming a teacher, then working his way up the administrative chain. He was working as the deputy superintendent in Cobb County, Ga., when he got the call from Deasy.

Quick cuts

"We had to talk about it," Hite said. "I was really looking to take on a district myself," so he had to be persuaded to be second in command again. He and Deasy found they had similar approaches to education.

Deasy, who took office in May 2006, had the advantage of flush years to launch expensive initiatives, including beefing up professional development and hiring staff for parent outreach at every school. Hite has been forced to make painful cuts -- including laying off hundreds of staff members and contending with a major boundary realignment that shifted thousands of students.

"I didn't expect to have to cut so much so fast," Hite said.

But he has presided over a merit-pay project that rewards teachers based on student performance -- something that Deasy initiated but Hite implemented. He is trying to put students on a path to college by setting specific goals as early as kindergarten. And he has proposed a comprehensive plan that sets systemwide targets for student achievement.

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