Philly school board names Tony Watlington as new superintendent

Dr. Tony Watlington sits at a table, with school board officials behind him

Dr. Tony Watlington will succeed Dr. William Hite as the next superintendent of Philadelphia schools, the board and Mayor Jim Kenney announced on April 1, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Dr. Tony Watlington, the superintendent of Rowan-Salisbury Schools System in North Carolina, has been named the new superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia.

After being introduced Friday morning, Watlington said he’ll bring a passion for student achievement to his new job.

“I wake up every morning asking myself one question, how are the children, how are all the children,” he said.

School board President Joyce Wilkerson says Watlington can deliver quality education.

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“Dr. Watlington is a deeply experienced, respected, innovative, and visionary educator whose background and expertise make him the right person to become the next Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia,” she said. “The board is committed to ensuring he is set up for success in this role.”

“Our city is passionate about education and we look forward to working with you to make our schools the beacons of light that we need them to be,” Mayor Jim Kenney said. “Dr. Watlington is the right person to lead the work ahead and ensure that every child has the opportunities and supports they deserve and can reach their full potential.”

The new position, which starts June 16, is a big step up for Watlington. His current district serves around 18,000 children. Now, he will lead one of the nation’s 20-largest districts, with about 120,000 students. He is also leaving a right-to-work state for a district with five separate unions.

He is inheriting a school system with substantial challenges, including aging school buildings – some with persistent health and safety issues like loose asbestos and mold – low teacher and staff morale, leading to high turnover, and academic struggles that intensified during the pandemic. Students are also coping with trauma from rising levels of gun violence.

Watlington said he will spend the next few months engaging in a “learning and listening tour to fully understand the depth of every issue” and promised to address them “with urgency.” His top priorities include understanding the district’s facility challenges and identifying the next steps to improving academic achievement.

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“I’m looking forward to working with the board and community to help provide life-changing opportunities and outcomes for each and every child in the School District of Philadelphia,” Watlington said.

He added that he is “going to get out and be very visible and learn Philadelphia,” and work to build relationships with elected officials in the city and Harrisburg. Because the district cannot raise its own money, it is dependent on the state and local government for funding.

Watlington was one of three finalists for the position in the school board’s six-month-long search after current Superintendent Dr. William Hite announced he would step down. Hite has led Philly schools for the past 10 years. Hite will join Cincinnati-based nonprofit Knowledgeworks as its president and CEO effective July 1.

Watlington beat out John Davis, the chief executive of Baltimore City Public Schools, and Krish Mohip, the deputy education officer for the Illinois State Board of Education.

Some community members criticized the final candidate pool, asking why there were no women or Philadelphians on the list. But Watlington appeared to be the favorite of the final three after each candidate visited the city in mid-March, participating in small roundtables with students, parents, and educators and larger public town halls.

“After meeting with the three candidates, it is abundantly clear that Tony Watlington is the best choice,” said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, in a statement Friday morning, adding that the superintendent-to-be “showed a seemingly very sincere commitment to working in a truly collaborative and transparent fashion.”

“I don’t think that there was any question that Dr. Watlington was the only possible choice among the three that were given,” said Philadelphia Councilmember Helen Gym, a longtime education activist.

Gym said that Watlington is taking the reins at a time when there is a “crisis of faith in the public school system,” and that she believes his priorities should be understanding why teachers are leaving and re-engaging students and families.

“Right now we need to restore faith in our public school system, that it has the understanding and the capacity to meet our students’ needs,” Gym said.

Watlington was born in New Jersey and, during community meetings in Philadelphia last month, described himself as a “free-and-reduced lunch kid” whose life was shaped by access to a strong public education. His own life experience, he said, would serve him well in Philadelphia, the poorest big city in the U.S.

Watlington started out as a custodian and bus driver before working his way up to become a history teacher, principal, and central office staffer. That trajectory, he said, means he knows how to work with people at all levels of a school district.

Rowan-Salisbury is North Carolina’s only “renewal district,” with flexibility around budgeting, staffing, curriculum, and the calendar. Student achievement, including third grade literacy rates, rose under Watlington’s tenure.

Before leading the Rowan-Salisbury district, Watlington was second-in-command at Guilford County Schools, the third-largest district in North Carolina.

During his community meetings, Watlington stressed that he believes teachers are the key to strong schools, and that he would like to create more pipelines for Philadelphia students — especially students of color — to become district teachers.

He also said he is committed to leading “with his cards on the table, face up” and building trust, which he sees as “the cumulative effect of small acts.”

The school board will officially vote to approve Watlington’s contract at its meeting on April 7. The board says his base salary will be $340,000, the same as Hite would have received if his contract were renewed. He will have a five-year contract, with an option for a one-year renewal.

Watlington said he is starting his housing search immediately, and plans to spend weekends in Philadelphia even as he finishes out the school year as Rowan-Salisbury superintendent.

“I intend to be on the ground, fully running, sooner than June 16th,” he said.

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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