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Philly school board hears more about Watlington’s 5-year plan, approves $4.5B budget

Superintendent Tony B. Watlington Sr.’s first blueprint to improve the district touches on many factors, from the curriculum to the calendar.

Copies of the five-year strategic plan prepared by School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Tony B. Watlington Sr. Watlington presented his plan to the school board Thursday night.
Copies of the five-year strategic plan prepared by School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Tony B. Watlington Sr. Watlington presented his plan to the school board Thursday night.Read moreTom Gralish / Staff Photographer

Tony B. Watlington Sr. pitched his plan for the future of the Philadelphia School District to the school board and public Thursday night, promising progress if the city gets behind his vision.

“We know pretty much everything we need to know about student achievement, particularly for poor Black and brown students,” Watlington said. “It’s a matter of will and aligning the resources and skill to do it.”

Watlington released “Accelerate Philly,” his much-anticipated five-year strategic plan, on Wednesday. It includes 60 specific strategies, from spending $70 million on new English, math and science curricula to piloting year-round education and high-dosage tutoring.

» READ MORE: ‘Paid parents,’ year-round school, new curriculum, and swimming instruction: Here’s Philly’s 5-year school roadmap

There has been particular interest around year-round education, raised by Democratic mayoral nominee Cherelle Parker as a priority.

The strategic plan calls for up to 10 schools to pilot the concept, which was tried in Philadelphia between 2000 and 2004, then discarded.

“We absolutely have no interest — no interest — in requiring a school or a parent community to adopt a 12-month or year-round calendar,” Watlington told the board.

There’s not yet a final price tag for the plan; Watlington said one was still being developed.

But asked whether the district has enough staff to execute the ambitious vision, the superintendent was clear.

“The short answer is no,” Watlington said. When he visits schools — he’s been to about 75 so far, of the 216 district-wide — he can still see the effects of the brutal budget cuts of a decade ago, that resulted in the layoff of thousands.

The district must move urgently, the superintendent said.

“When we don’t get better faster, people vote with their feet, and they walk out the door,” said Watlington. The school district has been losing students for decades; it currently has about 113,000; it once had about 200,000.

In addition to improving academics, the district must improve how it deals with the public. Now, parents and members of the community don’t get timely or adequate answers when they reach out to the central office, Watington said.

He wants the district to reach a level of service that’s “as good as a really nice car dealership or Chick-fil-A.”

Board members generally had warm words for the plan.

Accelerate Philly “certainly fills me with not just hope, but expectation,” Leticia Egea-Hinton said, that Watlington is “actually starting to move us in the direction of action.”

But vice president Mallory Fix-Lopez had hoped to see more about English-language learners and other diverse learners. Board member Chau Wing Lam, speaking in her native Cantonese, said she had concerns.

“I, too, do not see in this strategic plan how we are cultivating the diversity of the students in our system,” particularly those whose first language is not English, said Lam.

No vote was taken Thursday night; the board will consider adopting the plan at a special meeting scheduled for June 1.

Board members did adopt a $4.5 billion budget for the 2024-25 school year Thursday night.

The proposed budget would increase school safety spending, adding 15 school safety officers and two safety supervisors; provide more counselors at some high-needs schools; buy a new data-management system to help manage the district’s environmental needs; launch an attendance marketing campaign, purchase a two-way communication system for schools; renovate career and technical education facilities, buy new curriculum; and provide new supports for English language learners.

The capital budget includes projects in the design and construction stage — Lincoln High School’s athletic fields, plus Solis-Cohen, T.M. Peirce and Cassidy elementary schools.

New additions are already underway at Ethan Allen, Anne Frank, Disston, Mayfair, Rhawnhurst and Richmond elementary schools, and the Shallcross Garage. And more new projects will be launched — additions at Fox Chase Farm and McCall Elementary School, renovations at Bache-Martin, Bethune, Fitler and McClure elementary schools, and renovations with modular additions at Comly and Hopkinson elementary schools.