Philadelphia’s three superintendent finalists came to town this week, but which one will take over the district from William R. Hite Jr. next school year remains to be seen.
Over the course of three days, John Davis, the current chief of schools in Baltimore; Krish Mohip, deputy education officer for the Illinois State Board of Education; and Tony B. Watlington Sr., superintendent of Rowan-Salisbury schools in North Carolina, fielded questions from parents, teachers, principals, and community members — talking about subjects ranging from leadership style to how they would make choices should there be budget cuts.
Here’s where some of their strengths lie when it comes to Philadelphia’s challenges and dynamics:
Who has big-city experience?
Davis has the most experience in big, urban districts; he’s spent decades in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore public schools, where he’s now chief of schools, supervising all principals. Mohip began his career as a Chicago kindergarten teacher and eventually rose to be “chief transformation officer,” responsible for the Chicago public school district’s lowest-performing schools. He also was tapped to be the CEO of the Youngstown, Ohio, school system, hired to execute a state takeover of the struggling school system. (Mohip said that he “wasn’t crazy about” the state takeover but that he had a job to do.)
Watlington’s current school system in suburban North Carolina enrolls about 20,000 students, most of whom are economically disadvantaged; he previously worked as the No. 2 in command of the Guilford County, N.C., school district of about 73,000.
What are their plans for teachers?
Philadelphia employs 9,000 teachers and has a powerful union. Working conditions in the school system of 120,000 students have always been tough; the last two years have layered on even more challenges, with the added responsibilities of the pandemic, staff vacancies, and substitute shortages. This year, the number of midyear teacher resignations is up 200%.
During the week’s meetings, each of the candidates talked about valuing teachers and acknowledging the difficulties COVID-19 has brought to the profession.
“I believe our teachers’ morale has been beaten down and it’s going to take time to build that back with them,” Mohip said.
Watlington wants to create programs to identify aspiring teachers as early as middle school, then pay for them to attend college, in exchange for a promise to work for the district. He proposed a similar program to attract more Black male teachers.
Davis said he believed teachers ought to be lifted up, publicly recognized by the school system.
“You have to find some type of public way” to celebrate teachers, said Davis. “The mantra of ‘A teacher’s job is never done, teachers this, teachers that’: If you really believe that, then you’ve got to celebrate them,” he said.
Can they handle infrastructure challenges?
Philadelphia has hundreds of aging buildings and a nearly $5 billion repair bill to fix them all. Davis said his time in Washington, which coped with similar issues and has mounted a successful building campaign, would position him well.
“I will tell you in D.C. there were some great leaders that really put some money into rebuilding just about all the schools. ... It gives me hope that we can do that,” Davis said.
What’s their connection to Philly?
No candidate has any ties to or experience with the city, a fact that has some community members calling for the school board to redo its search. (Board vice president Leticia Egea-Hinton, who led the search, said it will not.)
Each candidate expressed eagerness to dive in and learn about the district and the city. Mohip said he would move his family to Philadelphia and enroll his three children in district schools; Davis said his daughter would remain in D.C. public schools. Watlington’s youngest child is 17; his oldest two are college-age.
What else did they say?
Davis said he’d like to see every high school in Philadelphia have Advanced Placement courses. (That’s already a goal for the district but not a current reality.) Mohip stressed making sure every student has at least one adult in their building with whom they connect. Watlington started his career as a custodian and bus driver, and said he knows “how to work with people in all levels of this organization.”
Who is the front-runner?
One candidate emerged from the pack as the clear favorite. Ofmore than a dozen people interviewed by The Inquirer — parents, teachers, administrators, union leaders, community members, all of whom participated in the questioning process or paid close attention to each candidate’s answers over the three days — all but two said Watlington would be their pick; the two others declined to choose. Here’s what they said:
Robert Berretta, principal, Ziegler Elementary: “For me, it was Tony Watlington by a country mile. All of the candidates brought some impressive experience to the table; I think all of them have really interesting perspectives on how to manage a large and diverse school system. Dr. Watlington was the only person to name instruction as our core business, and I really do believe that — we are in the business of ensuring really great teaching and learning.”
As for Watlington’s lack of experience as the top leader in an organization Philadelphia’s size, “You can scale good initiatives,” Berretta said.
Dana Carter, activist and policy adviser for State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams: Carter said the process has been flawed, but “we can be critical of the process without being critical of these individuals. Each candidate said some things I did like.” Ultimately, if she had to pick one, it would be Watlington.
His response on how he’d deal with five separate labor unions (including the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, and Service Employees International Union 32BJ, which represents employees including bus drivers, cleaners, and aides) rang true to Carter. “As long as we are all focused on the best interests of the children, it will work out,” she said.
Shakeda Gaines, president, Philadelphia Home and School Council: “If we had no other choice, it would be [Watlington]. It’s because of his rapport, his demeanor. He’s looking toward making partners out of parents and students.”
Andre Geffen, ninth grader, Central High School: Geffen favors Watlington, particularly for his stance that teachers at the neediest schools should get significantly higher pay. “Right now, the magnet schools attract the top teachers in the district. As a result, the neighborhood school kids get left behind.” Geffen also noted Watlington’s desire to stay in Philadelphia as long as current Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has — a decade. “If there’s one thing the district needs, it’s stability,” Geffen said.
Helen Gym, city councilmember: “I’m only open to one of them: Tony Watlington.” Gym, a longtime education activist whose children attended city schools from 2002 through 2021, said she was “very much looking for and appreciative of the rapport that Superintendent Watlington seemed to build on the front end.” But, she said, “I want to know that he is truly committed to Philadelphia, and has the ability to partner with labor.”
Gym liked what Watlington had to say about shoring up the educator pipeline, with resources and with building trust. “That is the biggest gap we have right now, more than money, we have a crisis of faith in our labor force, and a school system is only as strong as the people who lead our classrooms and our schools.”
Jerry Jordan, president, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers: “Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the best of the three was Tony Watlington, who certainly expressed his desire to be collaborative.” That will be key: Watlington has only ever worked in North Carolina, a right-to-work state, so the shift to a strong union town with a powerful teachers’ union will represent a learning curve.
Jordan said that Davis didn’t come across as particularly strong in instruction, and Mohip’s association with a state takeover was a nonstarter for him. “My late aunt used to say, ‘A leopard never changes its spots.’”
Stephanie King, parent, Kearny Elementary: King is “not thrilled with the choices,” but her pick is Watlington, “by default” because both Davis and Mohip were firm nos.
Watlington “seemed to recognize the cultural implications of leading an education system in Philadelphia,” a majority Black and brown district with a complex history. In saying he wanted to help Philadelphia’s children realize the unfulfilled promise of the Declaration of Independence, he also dropped a reference to 1619, the year the first enslaved people were brought to the U.S. “That was not an accident,” King said.
Also, “he seemed to want to work with people, not at them,” said King. “He talked about outwardly focused community engagement, which I liked.”
Our City Our Schools Coalition, a group made up of parents, teachers, and community members: The group “conditionally” supports Watlington. “He was the only candidate who convincingly talked about bringing stakeholder communities together and empowering people,” the organization said in a statement. “Above all else, we have gotten glowing recommendations from the school communities in North Carolina.”
The conditions under which Watlington will work for the group include a public commitment on Watlington’s part to a majority person of color leadership team, with special attention paid to hiring women; an open town hall to discuss the superintendent search process; and support from the unions whose workers make up the vast majority of district employees.
Ivey Welshans, teacher, Middle Years Academy: “I’m so disappointed that we’re not growing talent from within our area. I think that Philadelphia needs somebody from the area that understands what our schools are really like and understands what we’ve been dealing with and understands the culture here.” Her pick from among the three?
Watlington. “He seemed honest and sincere and interested in wanting to work with us,” Welshans said. “But wanting to and knowing how to do it are two completely different things.”
What happens now?
The school board has said it hopes to settle on a new superintendent next week. Hite, who is paid $334,644 annually, leaves the district at the end of this school year.