Jun 22, 2023 - News

A year-one report card for superintendent Tony Watlington

Tony Watlington

Photo: Courtesy School District of Philadelphia

Philly public schools superintendent Tony Watlington just finished his first year on the job, and mostly spent it studying up on the district.

Why it matters: Now it's go-time. Watlington's contract runs for at least four more years and the foundation he laid during the past 12 months is key to implementing his long-term plan to fix city schools and reverse declines in student academic achievement, attendance and enrollment.

State of play: In a challenged and chronically underfunded school system like Philly's, a new superintendent isn't afforded a honeymoon period.

  • Watlington is an outsider — he came from North Carolina — and needed a listening tour to get up to speed on issues facing the 113,000-student district.

First-year wins:

  • He shook up senior leadership and restructured the district’s central office with the goal of improving student attendance and dropout rates, per WHYY.
  • The district struck a deal to reopen the long-closed Sayre-Morris pool in West Philly, per the Inquirer.
  • Watlington's first budget — more than $4.5 billion — boosted year-over-year spending for traditional public school students, staff and public safety.

Yes, but: The budget still fell short of fully funding the district, per Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, Watlington faced other big challenges:

What they’re saying: Jerry Jordan, president of the teachers' union, tells Axios he gives Watlington a passing grade for year-one and applauds him for working to learn about the district.

  • Going forward, Watlington will have to figure out how to secure more money to adequately fund the district and ensure there are proper resources for facility maintenance, teacher retention efforts, and student academic supports.
  • “It’s all linked to funding,” Jordan says. “You need funding in order to provide the kind of quality education that we want to give our children.”

The other side: Some parents feel their concerns are going unheard by Watlington despite his listening tour and public relations efforts, says Barbara Dowdall, a member of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, a watchdog group.

  • One example: The superintendent’s long-term plan doesn’t prioritize better equipped libraries.

The big picture: Watlington’s plan spans academic achievement, operations and teacher recruitment.

  • Among the closely watched proposals is a pilot program for a year-round and extended-day calendar at up to 10 schools.
  • Student safety is also top of mind, considering historic levels of city gun violence.
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