Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church has the capacity to fit more than a full house.
However, Saturday morning’s event just needed a few roundtables to set forth a lively, yet constructive dialogue about the future of the School District of Philadelphia — and who the new captain will be to right the ship for the underfunded district.
After Superintendent William Hite announced his resignation following a rocky 10-year tenure that has had its highs and lows, the Philadelphia School Board of Education advertised a series of public listening sessions to hear what the community would like to see in the next hire.
Since Oct. 11, there have been nearly 40 of such sessions, both online and in-person. Saturday’s forum was the final opportunity for the public to weigh in face-to-face — just a half-dozen people showed up.
Nonetheless, the small turnout allowed for community members to speak candidly and directly to school board vice president Leticia Egea-Hinton and board member Lisa Salley.
What they wanted to know from the next superintendent got right to the point. “What is your actual experience engaging at a real level with parents?”
The intimate brainstorming yielded pages of traits and priorities that are must-haves for the ideal candidate.
The conversation began with a debate about the desired background of the next superintendent. It ranged from having a public education background, but also a way to connect communities to the business sector.
One of those who felt that way was Morgan Wilson Jr. He said that with a multifaceted approach, the superintendent would be able to have nuanced conversations with everyone. He believes that this would also allow the district to be more forward thinking in its curriculum. Wilson thinks that the district should be introducing new ideas like NFT’s and Bitcoin to students while also being open to reinstating the vocational school model.
In an interview with WHYY News, Wilson said that although he doesn’t have kids in the district, he was born and raised in the city and has a vested interest.
“Philadelphia is my home. I love Philadelphia and I watched the absolute destruction and decline of the Philadelphia school system, and I, just as a citizen, want it to get better,” Wilson said.
Another topic that came up during the discussion was cultural competency. There was a general consensus that having someone from Philadelphia or at least a similar urban environment is the best choice.
They insisted on the individual coming in with a clean background free from controversy.
Several of the listening session attendees expressed their desire in having a Black person running the district. A couple went a step further to say that the ideal candidate is a Black man as the next superintendent.
There was some pushback which led to a related discussion on what other attendees believe is the real issue: a lack of Black male teachers in Philadelphia’s public schools.
Other ideas thrown out, a visionary with good communication skills and a person who could build a relationship with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers while also acting as a disruptor of sorts.
Glen Wilson, a teacher-turned-child welfare worker, again reaffirmed his desire for a Black man to fill the superintendent role. However, he also brought up another hot button issue.
“He should be a voice to advocate changing the way schools are funded, because a major problem is the inequity between urban schools and suburban schools in resources that they have, because of how schools are funded,” Wilson said.
When the dialogue got to the superintendent’s priorities, a debate ensued about teacher burnout and retention. Marnita Adams, a retired teacher in the district, argued that if the district is to keep a steady stream of educators, then they have to address burnout — the reason why she left after 30 years.
Gail “Mama Gail” Clouden had a different point of view.
“You’re talking about teacher burnout, but I watched teachers bullying,” Clouden said.
She claimed that both Black students and even Black teachers have been pushed out of the system. She pushed back on the term student achievement and said that the elephant in the room is actually “adult failure.”
In the end, despite some of their disagreements, many of the attendees shared similar perspectives. Ultimately, they want what’s best for the children.
Adams, the retired teacher, will always have a love for Philadelphia school students.
“I still go into the schools occasionally to help other teachers, because the teachers need the help and what I need for the new superintendent to be able to have[is] a more diverse teacher population, staff population, and that the superintendent, of course, will love our kids,” Adams said.
While this was the last in-person session, there will be six more opportunities to sound off online during virtual forums on Nov. 1 and Nov. 3, before officially wrapping up the process.
Egea-Hinton told WHYY News that the general idea that she has gotten from these sessions is that the community wants a leader who can cultivate a strong team.
“People have said that they want someone who’s a visionary, someone who has the personality that is able to engage with communities, in particular, to really get to know the parents, the whole system,” Egea-Hinton said.
In terms of what she is looking for, she wants someone to bring in new ideas but also continue the work that has already been started, such as Goals and Guardrails.
The final job description will be released in November. Interviews will take place soon after and continue into December.
The public can expect that the finalists will be announced in January, however, the appointment won’t be made until spring.
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