Tony B. Watlington Sr. didn’t have to show up on the day the teachers’ union handed out awards to educators, cafeteria workers and students, but he did it anyway, shaking hands and congratulating.
It was in North Carolina, a right-to-work state where unions have no bargaining power, let alone the weight they hold in Philadelphia. But Watlington made a promise to teachers when he arrived at the Rowan-Salisbury School District, and then he showed them he meant it.
“He made it clear that he wanted to work with the teachers and the union, which was amazing in North Carolina,” said Rena Taylor, president of the teachers’ union in the 20,000 school system. showstopper.”
Now Watlington will leave the South to become Philadelphia’s new superintendent, announced Friday by the school board to succeed William R. Hite Jr., one of the nation’s largest school systems, operating 216 schools, 115,000 students and a budget of $3.9 billion. He will earn $340,000 a year and sign a five-year contract that requires him to live in the city.
Things looked unsettled in the Rowan-Salisbury system when Watlington arrived in early 2021; his predecessor had left unexpectedly. But Watlington established a “strong and beautiful vision,” Taylor said, and built systems to achieve it.
“It’s a huge loss for us – Dr Watlington has been wonderful to work with,” Taylor said. “Our school board is quite conservative and able to mediate all voices. I really haven’t heard anything negative about him.
Watlington spent his entire career in North Carolina, briefly at Rowan-Salisbury and for decades in the much larger Guilford County school system. Both districts have struggled with high poverty rates and incidences of violence and racial conflict.
Reverend Mark Tyler, senior pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church, district parent and advisory board member who helped select superintendent candidates, said Watlington would have no trouble getting in and making friends : he is warm and great. (The advisory committee recommended a group of candidates to the school board, but had no say in its final choice.)
“The real challenge will be, can he manage to do more with less?” said Tyler. “It will be the first time he’s been challenged with a budget that doesn’t give you what you need.”
Tyler, who isn’t from Philadelphia himself, said he “cared about anyone coming to Philadelphia who isn’t from Philadelphia.” Still, he hopes Watlington will keep his the opening of a small town, even when the arrows are unmistakably coming in its direction.
“Philadelphia is a different level of criticism. I hope he has a strong constitution,” Tyler said. “This‘It will be his job to negotiate our desire for change and our kicking and screaming because things are changing.
As Mayor Jim Kenney’s director of education, Otis Hackney had a bird’s-eye view of superintendent candidates. Watlington was rock solid from his first contact with the advisory board, Hackney said — steady, with actionable answers to tough questions.
“He gives off strong educator vibes,” said Hackney, the former principal of South Philadelphia High. “Every time I’ve heard him speak, he sounds like a history teacher. He thinks and analyzes situations with a historian’s lens.
Even Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said Watlington was the right choice.
“Dr. Watlington has shown a seemingly very sincere commitment to working in a truly collaborative and transparent manner,” Jordan said in a statement. “He is praised, in every forum I have seen, as an excellent educator. , he appears serious in his commitment to work in partnership with the PFT and other district unions.
And while Robin Cooper, president of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, the district’s principals’ union, acknowledged that leaving a small district would mean a steep learning curve for Watlington, she chooses to remain optimistic.
“He deserves an opportunity to see what he’s capable of,” said Cooper, who faced Hite. “Just because he hasn’t led such a large district doesn’t mean he can’t lead such a large district. He who knew the great district well did not do well. He ignored the stakeholders.
City Council member Helen Gym agreed Watlington was the best of the three finalists, but said he had a monumental to-do list ahead of him given “a crisis of faith in our public school system”.
“The district is projecting the biggest drop in enrollment we’ve seen in years — and we need a superintendent who will work tirelessly to prove those projections wrong,” Gym said in a statement. “Teachers are not just leaving this system, but the profession. And we have far too many young people who are disengaged or have felt kicked out of school, especially in neighborhoods hardest hit by poverty, gun violence, the pandemic and disinvestment. This cannot go on.
Lisa Haver, a retired district teacher and founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, wants to believe Watlington can succeed. But the search process that identified him, which put forward no Philadelphians and no women as finalists, disappointed his group and others in the city.
Watlington, however, “seemed to be the person who connected with people the most, and that’s a big thing,” Haver said. “But we need to know if Dr Watlington is going to do things differently. Are we just going to do the same things, with standardized testing and outsourcing? Will he really be able to turn the tide?”
Teacher Ashante Carr, who teaches English to fifth and sixth grade students at Waring Elementary in Fairmount, was relieved when she learned Watlington was the next head of school.
“Of the three, he seems the closest,” Carr said. She likes that Watlington keeps her teacher’s license up to date. “It shows me he cares. Hopefully he just takes the time to get to know the schools, the staff and the climate.
Priscilla Lo, a district mother, said she “hopes [Watlington] will bring sweeping positive change to Philadelphia, because that is what we need. But since his tenure, I just don’t see that record. Still, she says, she will keep an open mind.
Watlington convinced school board president Joyce Wilkerson and the other board members of his readiness for the task, despite a lack of experience leading districts like Philadelphia’s.
“Basic systems are scalable,” Wilkerson said. “Good teaching is good teaching, whether you’re teaching 10 kids or way more than 10. He has the tools to really enact the changes needed for kids to excel.”
News researcher Ryan W. Briggs contributed to this article.