Tony B. Watlington Sr. officially began his superintendency Thursday. But his education regarding the 114,000-student Philadelphia School District began well before his first day on the job.
In the nearly two and a half months since Watlington was named chief executive of the district, he’s had plenty of residents march up to him and tell him exactly what they think about their child’s school, their experience with the district and their feelings about what he should tackle first.
“Suffice it to say my listening-and-learning tour has already begun,” said Watlington, a career educator from North Carolina who was most recently superintendent in the Rowan-Salisbury school system, which educates about 20,000. “It’s very inspiring. It’s quite interesting.”
The new superintendent was sworn in Thursday by Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Stella Tsai, with sons Tony Jr., Aaron, and Caleb watching.
Mayor Jim Kenney told Watlington that he thought the job he was taking “may be as important, or more important than mine. You hold the future of our kids in your hands, and your staff … the only way out of poverty, out of crisis, out of despair, is a good education.”
Watlington, 51, hit the ground running, announcing a 100-day plan that will have him zigzagging the city, personally engaging in 80 listening sessions in person and online.
He said he wants to hear not just from students, teachers, and parents, but from groups not typically engaged by the district — those with young children considering the school system, those who left the system, those without children.
“I want to have a really big tent of involvement and voices,” Watlington said in an interview Wednesday.
At the end of the 100 days, Watlington, who will be paid $340,000 annually, promises an “aggressive five-year strategic plan for the district. That will be our North Star, it will outline how we use our time, our budget, our professional learning to achieve the board’s Goals and Guardrails.”
He said he has five broad priorities: assessing student and staff well-being; engaging and building trust with the community, students, staff, and families; assessing teaching and learning; assessing district leadership capacity and alignment; and assessing district operations, facilities, and finances.
Under those bullet points are action items ranging from hiring a community liaison to coordinate grassroots communication and responses to community issues to assessing the coherence of the district’s literacy and math instructional frameworks. Watlington will review student and staff mental health supports to determine whether enough resources are being invested there, and will assess the autonomy and authority of principals in the current organizational structure.
Watlington succeeds William R. Hite Jr., who left after a decade to become CEO of the education nonprofit KnowledgeWorks and the first superintendent-in-residence of a new program at Yale University. And though the district solidified its financial position in the last 10 years, it still struggles, even compared to other big-city systems. On the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress, considered the nation’s report card, just 17% of Philadelphia fourth graders read at grade level, and 18% hit the mark in math. Sixteen of 27 major urban systems outperformed the district on reading and 19 did better in math.
Still, Watlington said, “I do think the previous administration — Dr. Hite — did some good work to lay a foundation upon which a new administration can build on.”
Though he has been a superintendent for just a year and a half in North Carolina, Watlington has broad experience — from bus driver (Bus 229) and custodian to history teacher, elementary and comprehensive high school principal, chief of schools, and deputy superintendent. He says all those positions have informed the job he assumes today.
“In every role I’ve had, we’ve been able to make significant improvement,” Watlington said. “I have a can-do attitude. I believe in the power of our young people. I believe in this great city.”
Improving academics and making sure students have equitable opportunities no matter where they live or what school they attend is a daunting task, Watlington said — he likened it to “turning a super tanker in the middle of the Delaware River.” But he said he is not intimidated by the scope of the district and its $3.9 billion budget, its complicated past and unique funding structure. (The school system cannot raise its own funds, but instead relies largely on money allocated by the state and city.)
Watlington, who said he wants Philadelphia to become “the fastest-improving urban district in the United States,” said he’s inspired by the idea that he’s assuming the superintendency in the place where the nation was born.
“I do think that’s pretty symbolic,” Watlington said. “If any urban district can do this, it’s certainly the School District of Philadelphia.”
City and school officials gathered to support Watlington at School District headquarters Thursday morning, promising to support his work.
School board president Joyce Wilkerson said the district is still far from its goals of academic excellence and equity for all of Philadelphia’s students, but “has the utmost faith that Dr. Watlington, with his almost 30 years experience in education, will be able to get this done.”
Watlington is already a resident of Philadelphia — he now lives in Center City. And he’s a fan of cheesesteaks, though he hasn’t settled on a favorite yet. (He has not yet sampled soft pretzels, he said.)
Watlington will be in the stands at Franklin Field this weekend when his youngest, a rising senior at a Guilford County, N.C., public school, runs the 200- and 400-meter dash at the New Balance Nationals.
“I’m going to live vicariously through him,” said Watlington.
And he’s going to rest up. It’s going to be a busy 100 days, the superintendent said, and much is at stake.
“The future economic vitality of the city of Philadelphia is all of our responsibility,” he said. “I want to give the charge — let’s go do this great work together.”