Philly’s new superintendent talks student success, teacher turnover, early goals

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)

This story originally appeared on Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

This time last year, Tony Watlington Sr. was leading North Carolina’s Rowan-Salisbury school district, which educates roughly 19,500 students.

Big changes have arrived for him and for Philadelphia. On Thursday, he is taking over as superintendent of the city’s school district, Pennsylvania’s largest. He will lead a district with over 200,000 district and charter students in the nation’s sixth-largest city.

Watlington is the first Philadelphia superintendent to be appointed after the city regained local control, following the end of the state’s School Reform Commission. He arrives at a time when the district is experiencing staffing shortagescrumbling buildings, declining enrollment, and a struggle to return to academic normalcy after 18 months of virtual learning.

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After receiving a unanimous vote from Philadelphia’s Board of Education to replace William Hite, who was superintendent for 10 years, Watlington was appointed to a five-year term. His salary will be similar to his predecessor’s at $340,000 a year.

Watlington’s ability to connect with political players will be crucial, in part because the district wants more state funding to meet the needs of its students. His relationship with Mayor Jim Kenney in particular is one to watch, since Kenney appoints school board members and makes other key decisions that affect district operations.

Watlington said the district is launching a new website where families can view the 80 listening and learning sessions he will conduct over the next three months, take a survey, and provide feedback. The information gathered will be used to help achieve the Board of Education’s “goals and guardrails.”

The new superintendent sat down with Chalkbeat Wednesday for an extensive interview about his future leading Philadelphia’s public schools. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Have you visited any schools? How has your interaction been with district employees?

Yes, I’ve had the good fortune to visit a handful of schools. I’m trying to do it in such a way that I don’t interfere with their preparation for their year-end exams and the like. But it was a great chance to talk with a small number of principals and teachers and students in particular. I feel even more confident this is the right decision after having talked with all of those groups.

What I’ve taken from it is that people are passionate. There’s a lot of different opinions about what we do well, and what we might consider. It just kind of whetted my appetite to do deep listening and learning.

A position to lead big city school districts such as Philadelphia is viewed as one of the hardest jobs in the country. Coming from a smaller district, how do you plan to shape urban education in the country’s sixth-largest city? 

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Number one, teaching and learning transcends school size. The second thing I would say is that the key is to have collaborative relationships with parents, because teachers and principals cannot do this work alone, regardless of the size of a school district. The third thing I would say is that it’s important for the Board of Education to have a committed focus. And this board has done just that with its “goals and guardrails.”

Are there any policies that need to be addressed?

I’ve asked the Board of Education to begin taking a hard look at all of our policies, and the extent to which they help us to reduce the barrier or eliminate barriers to improving student achievement for all groups, particularly Black and brown children who underperform white children.

Your predecessor’s director of communications resigned recently. Should we expect a lot of changes in the top ranks?

I think we’ve got stable leadership right here and we’re not going to skip a beat.

The Board of Education revealed a couple of months ago that teachers are quitting at a higher rate mid-year. What can or will you do to attract and retain good teachers?

The first thing I’m going to do is listen as a part of the listening and learning tour to hear the voices of teachers and what their needs are.

Second, I intend to fully investigate and understand what I believe to be some pretty good steps that this district has already taken to try to address teacher shortages and to mitigate the problem of teacher loss. That’s not limited to just our school district, quite frankly.

Third, I’m going to work with the team to identify specific strategies to expand our recruiting footprint at historically Black colleges and universities across the United States, as well as predominantly white institutions, and to continue to identify opportunities to grow our own teachers.

Have you met union representatives? Jerry Jordan with the teachers? Robin Cooper with the principals? How was that conversation?

Yes. I spent some time one on one with Jerry Jordan as well as one on one with Dr. Cooper. We’ve had some very authentic initial conversations. I very much look forward to working in partnership with all our union presidents.

We’re all after the same outcome, and that’s to significantly improve the outcomes for our students, while we also meet the needs of our staff members who provide the services to our students.

Let’s touch on equity and fairness in education. Right now we are waiting on a ruling in the fair school funding trial. Pennsylvania has been accused of adopting an inequitable funding system that does not provide resources all of its students need to meet state standards and discriminates against students based on their socio-economic status. Have you read up on the trial? And what programs or initiatives would you bring to help close the gap for students who hail from struggling areas?

I’ve had the opportunity to speak with a number of legislators when I visited Harrisburg recently. I’ve had an opportunity to have a phone conversation with Gov. Wolf and several other members of the delegation.

There are five priority areas that I’ll be focused on. First, I want to spend time assessing student and staff well-being. I mean physical health, social and emotional health, And that would also include the impact of gun violence in the school district and safety issues that certainly have an impact on schools, some more than others.

Secondly, I want to spend some time really honing in on how to engage with broad stakeholder groups across this city. I’ve got to understand their hopes, their aspirations, their concerns, understand what they think we do well, and what our various community members think we need to improve.

The third area will be to assess teaching and learning. Certainly, we want to take a hard look at our curriculum resources. To what extent do teachers, are teachers equipped to do the jobs that we’re asking them to do? What’s their levels of support? The same is true of principals who lead schools.

Fourth, we want to assess the extent to which we have lots of talent in this school district, as well as where the gaps are.

And then finally, that fifth area of work will involve assessing the district’s operations, facilities, and finances.

All of those have some budgetary impacts. We will deliver formal findings and formal recommendations to the Board of Education and be very public and very transparent. And we’ll say the things that we found, and here’s what we’re going to recommend.

What are your strategies to take on gun violence and keep students safe getting to and from school?

The first priority area that is in my entry plan, and this is not an accident, is assessing student and staff well being. Even before we get to teaching and learning, assessing teaching, or learning, or focus on assessing where students are, was a big study. You’ve got nearly 200,000 students. I would imagine that some students, some staff members, and some parents are situated differently than others. So I don’t think I should paint the whole city with a broad brush.

I want to take the time to understand the context of the problem. Because I want to be careful not to get into stereotypes, or just what I think I’ve read or observed in the media. I want to take the time to do my due diligence, to take the time to listen, to talk to people, and to study our data. We have school climate data. There’s statistics available from the police department and others. And so we will have more to offer in that regard.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about Philadelphia and the district since being hired?

Well, because I’ve spent a good amount of time studying the district, and I had some familiarity with the city, with my father living some 20 miles west of here over in New Jersey, I wouldn’t say that I was surprised by anything.

The district has done such a phenomenal job of improving its financial health. That’s really important in urban America, where the tax base can sometimes be challenging. There are some indicators that suggest that you’re making some momentum. The spirit, spunk, and grit that I’ve observed firsthand among Philadelphians says to me that we absolutely can be the fastest improving urban school district in the country.

Have you picked a neighborhood? Have you bought a house yet?

I have become a resident of Center City. I’m currently not a homeowner. I am doing a temporary lease to give me more time to learn the city and figure out where I want to focus on. There are lots of great neighborhoods to choose from here.

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