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7 things to know about Philly’s new superintendent, Tony B. Watlington Sr.

Philly's new superintendent is a teacher at heart. He grew up receiving free lunch in public schools. He has four college degrees and three children. He wants to play guitar like Prince.

Tony Watlington meets the public in a town hall at Philadelphia School District headquarters in March. Watlington is the new Philadelphia superintendent.
Tony Watlington meets the public in a town hall at Philadelphia School District headquarters in March. Watlington is the new Philadelphia superintendent.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Come June 16, Philadelphia will have a new superintendent: Tony B. Watlington Sr.

Here are seven things to know about the career educator from North Carolina, chosen after a six-month search to replace William R. Hite Jr., who is leaving Philadelphia at the end of the year after a decade as superintendent. Watlington beat out about 400 other candidates to win the position.

1. He has experience at every level.

Watlington started his career in education as a bus driver and a custodian. He became a history teacher in Guilford County, N.C., in 1994, and by 1998 was named teacher of the year in that district, North Carolina’s third-largest. By age 29, he was appointed to his first principalship, and rose through the ranks in Guilford County, eventually working as chief of schools before becoming Rowan-Salisbury’s superintendent in 2021.

» READ MORE: Tony Watlington, who leads a small N.C. school district, talks to Philly

2. His current district is much different than Philly.

About 500 miles from Philadelphia, the Rowan-Salisbury school system has 35 schools and 19,500 students.

Rowan-Salisbury is North Carolina’s only “recovery district,” given flexibility in budgeting, calendar, curriculum, and personnel. It has seen literacy gains, a dropout-rate reduction, and improvement in academic performance for every group of students, Watlington said.

3. Teaching remains fundamental for him.

He keeps his teaching license current. “I am a teacher at my core. In my current role as superintendent, I often describe myself as the chief teaching and learning officer for the district,” said Watlington. And he believes that “the No. 1 ingredient to improving academic performance for all of our students is recruiting high-quality teachers, developing and supporting and retaining those teachers.”

4. A public school advocate, he still thinks there’s room for charters.

Asked during a community meeting where he stood on charter schools, Watlington said he is “a product of public education, I believe in public education.” But, he said, “I think all of us can agree that every student deserves a great school and excellent teachers, and there’s more than one way to do it. I think there’s an appropriate role for choice for families.”

» READ MORE: Opinion: In their own words, Philly educators, students, and parents share advice for the city’s next superintendent.

5. Modeling his values is important to him.

Watlington said he has a plan for keeping his team motivated. He said he would “model my values and appreciation for them. Build and maintain high levels of trust. Specifically and intentionally invest in their professional development.”

6. Here’s some of what he said while here.

Watlington promised to communicate, even when the district’s news wasn’t positive. “Great organizations don’t hide problems,” he said.

Bring on the public engagement: focus groups, advisory panels, committees, Watlington said. “When you engage with the public ... sometimes it can be a little messy. I’m not at all bothered at all by hard and tough questions.”

With very little grounding on Philadelphia and what makes it tick, Watlington said he will do a lot of listening. “It would be a learning curve for me to learn this city, to learn the elected officials and communities.

Why he wanted to come to the district: “I think the School District of Philadelphia can be a national beacon of hope, that shining city on the hill,” Watlington said. “I sure would like to be your partner in that work.”

» READ MORE: What does Philadelphia’s superintendent do, and why should you care?

7. He wants to play guitar like Prince.

Philadelphia’s new superintendent was born at Fort Dix, N.J., and grew up in rural North Carolina. He spent summers in Willingboro. He is the youngest of seven children. He received free lunch as a public school student.

“I was one of those poor kids, economically, but rich in spirit,” Watlington said.

The first member of his family to graduate from college, Watlington earned a bachelor’s degree in history education at North Carolina A&T State University, a master’s degree in American political history from The Ohio State University, and master’s and doctoral degrees in education from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

He’s a lifetime member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.

Watlington has three sons, Tony Jr., Aaron, and Caleb, the youngest of whom is 17. He’s been a runner since he was young — partly for stress relief, he said, and partly because he enjoys the medals you earn at races. He also plays the guitar, though that’s a work in progress, Watlington said.

“I want to be able to play as well as Jimi Hendrix or Prince,” Watlington said. “I want a chance to play ‘Purple Rain’ someday.”