Philly education advocates weigh in on new city schools chief Tony Watlington Sr.

Watlington, superintendent at the Rowan-Salisbury Schools in North Carolina, starts his new role on June 16

By: - April 5, 2022 10:25 am

By Chanel Hill

PHILADELPHIA — Community groups and education advocates are having their say on incoming School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Tony Watlington Sr.

Watlington, superintendent at the Rowan-Salisbury Schools in North Carolina, starts on June 16. He replaces outgoing schools chief William Hite.

“I’m excited about the board selecting Dr. Watlington and looking forward to working with him in the future,” Donna Frisby-Greenwood, president and CEO of the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, said.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said the Board of Education made the right pick by choosing Watlington.

“Dr. Watlington showed a seemingly very sincere commitment to working in a truly collaborative and transparent fashion,” Jordan said in a statement.

“He is hailed, in every forum I have seen, as an excellent educator,” he added. “He appears earnest in his commitment to working as partners with the PFT and other District unions.”

In a statement, Our City Our Schools Coalition said Watlington was the only candidate who talked about bringing stakeholders together.

Philly schools superintendent William Hite is leaving

“He has been open and transparent about the importance of real engagement and supporting employees and the whole school community. He can empathize and connect with every key member of the school system, because he has walked in their shoes,” said the statement.

“His response to young people protesting and walking out to demand quality leadership is one we need in Philly,” the Our City Our Schools Coalition statement said. “Instead of pacifying students, Watlington along with others actually sat and listened to the demands of their young people, with the hope to serve them well.

“He fearlessly calls out the racial biases that have plagued our education systems,” the statement added. “As a past history teacher, Watlington has a deep understanding that for our schools to be transformative and equitable for all, new culture-sensitive initiatives have to take place.”

Watlington is taking over a school district with many challenges including outdated school buildings, environmental health and safety issues, which include asbestos and lead, and a unprecedented teacher turnover due to the pandemic.

There are 9,300 teaching positions in the school district. District officials stated last week that the district will need to hire at least 900 teachers for the upcoming school year.

The district started the school year with 98% of teaching positions filled, a number that has since decreased to 96.5%. There are currently 300 teaching vacancies in the district.

City Councilmember Helen Gym said among the top issues that Watlington needs to address are teacher vacancies.

“We will have over 1,000 vacancies for next year,” Gym said. “We need 1,200 Black teachers just to get the numbers we had a decade ago.

“When Dr. (William) Hite came in, there was the closure of 30 schools, 4,000 staff were let go and we didn’t have nurses and counselors at the school,” she said. “Now at the end of his tenure, we have hundreds of vacancies. We’ve got families that are disengaged and Dr. Watlington steps into that.

“He will need to earn the trust of his team, his staff, teachers and the public to get this mission done,” Gym added. “I think this crisis is less about money than it is a crisis of faith.”

Watlington told the Philadelphia Tribune that he understands the depth of the teacher recruitment issue, an issue that has gone beyond the state’s largest city.

“We’ll be working with the team to identify ways that we build on the work right and to identify how we grow our own,” Watlington said. “I’m interested in recruiting more African-American male teachers, by providing a four-year scholarship where they agreed to work in the school district for four years to pay off the terms of the loan, and to identify those young men as early as middle school.

“We’ve got to take the time to get that pipeline and grow our own,” he added. “When we get teachers in the district, we also want to wrap our arms around them and make sure that we train them, give them the professional development they need and listen to their voices, so that we can develop and retain them over time.”

Watlington added he wants to double recruitment efforts and deepen partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Watlington is an alumnus of North Carolina A&T State University.

“We need to be at Cheyney, Lincoln, Delaware State, just overall all of the HBCUs because they produce a disproportionate number of educators in the country,” Watlington said. “We need to go after as many teachers as we can get.”

Shakeda Gaines, president of Philadelphia Home and School Council, said she’s hopeful that Watlington will bring a fresh start for the district.

“We did research on him and his community in North Carolina loves him,” Gaines said. “We’re hoping Home and School Council, Parents United, as well as Our City Our Schools can have a one-on-one with him.”

“I’m hopeful that when he comes in here that he will build people’s power and allow us to have our voice,” Gaines added. “We’re hopeful that with this new leadership there will be a new start for our district.”

Chanel Hill is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared

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