Philadelphia chooses Tony Watlington as superintendent of new schools


The Philadelphia School Board has chosen veteran North Carolina educator Tony Watlington to be the city’s next school superintendent, succeeding Superintendent William Hite at a pivotal time in the district.

As of January 2021, Watlington has run the Rowan-Salisbury School District, which has 18,000 students, where many schools have been granted significant autonomy by the state over things like budgets and curriculum. In Philadelphia, he will oversee 120,000 students in one of the nation’s 20 largest districts.

On Friday, the school board announced Watlington as the next superintendent.

It takes over a neighborhood with multiple challenges: dilapidated, dilapidated and insufficiently maintained buildings; a predominantly low-income student body in the nation’s poorest major city; and unprecedented teacher turnover, exacerbated by harsh school conditions and an inability to match salaries offered in surrounding districts.

In meetings with the Philadelphia community last week, Watlington stressed that he believed teachers were key to the schools’ success and said he believed they should be paid more. High teacher turnover is a huge barrier to learning in schools with large numbers of black and brown students from low-income families, he said.

“Who Gets the Absolute Best Teacher?” he said. “How do you define who the best teachers are? These are questions I spend a lot of time thinking about. »

Watlington called himself a teacher, not a bureaucrat. He also discussed ideas on how to bring Philadelphia District graduates back to the city to teach in public schools; the importance of a rigorous curriculum that includes things like advanced college math; and its potential support for an audit of individualized district education programs.

Watlington hails from nearby Willingboro, NJ, and is the youngest of seven children. He was the first in his family to attend university. At his City Hall event last week in Philadelphia, he described himself as a “free and reduced lunch kid” who grew up in poverty and therefore could get along well with students in Philadelphia, which is the poorest major city in the United States with a poverty rate above 25%.

Watlington’s first job in education, he said, was as a caretaker and bus driver before becoming a history teacher. He has spent most of his career in education in the Guilford County district of 72,000 students in North Carolina, where he started as a history teacher in 1994 at James B. Dudley High School.

He went on to serve as a curriculum specialist, vice principal and principal, first at a primary school and then at Dudley. He was also the principal of GTCC Early-Middle College High School, which strives to ensure that all students earn an associate’s degree or college credit.

He joined the central office in 2008 and became head of schools in 2017. He was also part of the superintendent’s office.

In 2018, using a North Carolina law designed to increase flexibility for individual schools, Rowan-Salisbury became a “renewal” district. This meant that Watlington oversaw a school system where up to 16 of its 35 schools could become “transformation schools”. These schools have assumed control of their budgets, staff, curriculum, and operations, similar to how charter schools operate.

In detailed comments on teachers, Watlington said at meetings last week that he favored “significantly higher salaries in schools where they are most needed,” he said. He also approved recruitment bonuses.

Watlington said he would be open to some form of performance pay for teachers, but he also stressed that their performance should be judged holistically, not just by looking at test scores.

It is true “that high performing schools have good teachers,” he said, “but schools with low test scores also have good teachers.” Watlington said it’s crucial for school districts to identify and retain top-performing teachers, even in difficult circumstances.

“We have to have strategies to get there,” Watlington said. “Why don’t we follow market forces of supply and demand in schools like we do everywhere else? »

The Philadelphia Teachers’ Federation has generally opposed pay differentials based on the schools to which individuals are assigned. There is no provision for such differentials in the current contract.

Watlington graduated from North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University, a historically black institution, and earned a master’s degree in American political history from The Ohio State University.

Watlington said when Chicago and Los Angeles were looking for new superintendents, he was not interested. But Philadelphia immediately interested him, partly because of its history.

“I’m in love with the idea of ​​being superintendent in the very city where Thomas Jefferson facilitated the signing of the Declaration of Independence and where the Constitution was signed a decade later,” Watlington said. “People in Philadelphia may take this story for granted, but people in the rest of the country find it exciting.”

He also holds a master’s degree in educational administration and a doctorate in instructional leadership from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The search started with a pool of 400 people

The Board of Education began its search for a new superintendent in September, when Hite announced he would be leaving at the end of this school year. He was originally scheduled to leave in August, but later moved his departure date to the end of June. Hite begins a new position with the education nonprofit KnowledgeWorks on July 1.

As part of the process to hire Hite’s replacement, the council hired a recruitment firm, formed a 13-member community advisory committee, and held a series of town hall meetings asking people what they were looking for in a new superintendent. The board also invited people to complete a written survey about what they wanted in the next superintendent, from which it compiled a detailed report.

The board’s report on the survey, which received more than 3,900 responses, said the top traits people said they wanted in a new leader included problem-solving and change-making skills, culture and the ability to build trust. This report did not indicate that people only wanted someone who grew up in the city or had experience in its school system.

They chose three finalists: Watlington, Krish Mohip, deputy director of education for the Illinois State Board of Education, and John L. Davis, superintendent of Baltimore schools. All are longtime educators who started out as teachers, but none have ever worked in Philadelphia.

Each candidate spent a day in the city, meeting with pre-selected groups of parents, students and community members, then attended a town hall open to the public. The board then solicited input from those who had attended the sessions and from those who had registered for the public meetings.

The board rejected calls to reopen the search from some who were disappointed that no women or people from Philadelphia were among the three finalists.

However, the board said it had narrowed a potential pool of 400 to 35 who were more tightly vetted and then to 11 people to be actively considered. Of those 11, six were women and three had ties to the city, the council said.

Dale Mezzacappa is a Senior Writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in the city. She is a former president of the Education Writers Association. Contact Dale at [email protected]

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