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June 16, 2022

New superintendent of Philly schools to conduct listening tour during his first 100 days

Tony Watlington pledged to act 'with a fierce sense of urgency' to assess everything from academic achievement to infrastructure

Education Schools
Watlington SDP Superintendent Source/School District of Philadelphia

Tony Watlington was sworn in as superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia on Thursday. In his first 100 days, Watlington will embark on a 'listening and learning' tour to gauge the well-being of students, faculty and families across the city.

Tony Watlington stepped into his role as superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia on Thursday. 

In doing so, he outlined his goals for his first 100 days on the job in a nine-page message to students, parents, faculty and other public education stakeholders. 

Watlington will tour the district to meet with administrators and staff, gauge the conditions of its aging infrastructure and understand efforts to improve academic performance. 

Watlington's "listening and learning tour" prioritizes five areas that he says will help him assess the school district and identify his primary focus heading into the upcoming academic year. They include assessing teaching and learning, district leadership, and district operations, facilities and finances. He also plans to gauge the well-being of students and district employees, and to engage community stakeholders. 

The new superintendent will take part in more than 80 listening sessions to understand the structural issues that exist and how to best to respond to additional concerns. 

The schedule for these sessions — which are limited to 75 people per meeting to ensure that everyone has a change to speak — is being updated regularly, and is available on the school district's website

"As superintendent, I will work with a fierce sense of urgency, collaborating with our students, families, staff, city and state leaders, unions, universities, activists, grassroots organizations, and business leaders so together we can bring focus, energy, and creativity to our most complex challenges to improve the life outcomes of the 198,645 children that we serve," Watlington wrote in his message.

Watlington told Chalkbeat Philadelphia that his primary focus is on the well-being of staff and students, particularly as a response to the city's growing concerns about gun violence among young people. 

On Monday, city officials announced that 19 schools impacted by gun violence would receive security cameras outside of their facilities.  

"Even before we get into teaching and learning, assessing teaching, or learning, or focus on assessing where students are, was a big study," Watlington told Chalkbeat. "You've got nearly 200,000 students. I would imagine that some students, some staff members and some parents are situated differently than others. So I don't think I should paint the city with a broad brush." 

Watlington plans to hire a community liaison to provide him with information on school safety. He also plans to examine issues like chronic absenteeism, homelessness and out of school time. He said he will review data on school climates, including suspensions and expulsions, to identify key areas that can be addressed head-on. 

Watlington was selected by the school board in April to replace William Hite, who spent a decade running the district. Hite will begin his new role as CEO of KnowledgeWorks, a Cincinnati, Ohio-based education nonprofit on July 1. He also is set to serve as the inaugural superintendent in residence and executive fellow at the Broad Center at Yale University's School of Management.

Watlington signed a five-year contract that pays him an annual salary of $340,000. The contract contains a one-year renewal option. 

He comes to Philadelphia from North Carolina, where he spent the last year serving as the superintendent of the Rowan-Salisbury School District, which had about 19,500 students. His new district – the largest in Pennsylvania – has nearly 200,000 students. 

Since being hired, Watlington has moved to Center City and begun visiting schools.

He is transitioning into his role at an important time for Philadelphia schools. The district continues to recover from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and grapple with gun violence that occurred near some schools. The school board also passed a $3.9 billion budget last month despite concerns from principals that it does not adequately invest in schools. 

"I just want to say to you personally that your job may be as important or more important than mine because you hold the future of our kids in your hands," Mayor Jim Kenney said during Watlington's swearing-in ceremony Thursday morning. "I honestly believe that the only way out of poverty, out of despair, out of crisis, is having a good education."