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Philly Superintendent Tony Watlington
Philly Superintendent Tony Watlington released the recommendations from his Transition Team on Oct. 20. Photo: School District of Philadelphia.

Philly Superintendent Tony Watlington completes phase two of school district transformation with 91 recommendations

A Transition Team report broke down where the School District needs to emphasize to better serve Philly’s students in K-12.

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At the Philadelphia School Board meeting on Thursday, Oct. 20, Philadelphia Superintendent Tony Watlington and co-chairs of his transition team Andrea Custis and Dr. Donald Guy Generals were on hand to release Watlington’s Transition Team report, featuring 91 recommendations for improving outcomes for Philadelphia students.

The report is all-encompassing and brings to a close part two of Watlington’s effort to lay a new foundation to improve the School District of Philadelphia for all involved.

As he told Spanish-language media in a sit-down a day after presenting the report, the end goal is “to make our school district the fastest-improving large urban school district in the country.”

The next step — the final step of Watlington’s foundation building for the school district — is to absorb all that is presented in the report and put together a five-year strategic plan that will be presented in June, per the Transition Team Report.

As for who gets to help put together that final strategic report, Watlington is keeping it collaborative — the Transition Team Report was the product of more than 100 education experts and Philadelphians and his earlier listening tour interacted with around 3,000 people. 

“It won't be the superintendent sitting in a room by himself, or two or three people, we're gonna get a committee of students, teachers, principals, central office staff, we're gonna get some load some experts, some curriculum experts, to help us think about what makes sense to do first, second, and in what order,” said Watlington. “We want our community to feel like it's our plan, not the superintendent’s plan, and certainly not the Board of Education’s plan, but our plan.”

There are also some 91 recommendations — 58 short term and 33 long term to pick through and prioritize.

What’s in the report?

In a press release following the release of the report, the School District highlighted three themes that stuck out in regards to what could be prioritized once the five-year strategic plan is finalized. 

They include improving communication and customer service both internally and externally, increasing collaboration between departments within the district, and upping accountability and evaluation for the ultimate end goal of raising student achievement, which the district wants to increase after a number of years of stagnation

When it came to the actual work of the Transition Team, those that took part were split up into five different subcommittees, which were formulated out of Watlington’s listening tour. They are as follows — student achievement, anti-racist district culture, operations, community engagement and communications, and enriching and well-rounded school experiences.

In regard to a number of points addressed in the report, AL DÍA also had the opportunity to talk with Andrea Custis, a co-chair of the transition team, who went more in depth on a few.

Maintaining the teacher pipeline

When it comes to enriching the student experience, teachers are often the ones that carry the baton in the classroom. Philadelphia, like school districts across the country, has struggled to maintain a pipeline of teachers and other staff for its schools in the aftermath of a pandemic that stretched them to their limit and then some. 

Despite the difficulty, Custis was confident in the already-established connections for teaching talent, naming local HBCUs Cheyney and Lincoln University as good sources, but stated a desire to continue expanding the HBCU pool of teaching talent by going to other universities around the country.

More engagement with nonprofit and for-profit organizations that provide teaching assistance was also mentioned along with creating a better communication structure to get feedback from teachers themselves.

“How about asking them how they think and what they think we should be doing to attract and hire amazing teachers… but how do we also keep the great teachers that we have?” said Custis. “We always look at acquisition, but also I can tell you, Dr. Watlington will also be looking at retaining.”

Reviewing the curriculum

On the student achievement front, Custis spoke about reviewing the curriculum and making sure it too can help students achieve greater success in and out of the classroom. Specifically, she said Watlington would look at how other cities have approached reading and math instruction to see how Philadelphia could incorporate some of those tactics and improve.

More Spanish-language support

AL DÍA also asked about the increase of Hispanic students in the district and the continuing need for bilingual services both in teachers and informational materials. Custis said she thought the district was “doing pretty good right now.”

“But I'm quite sure there is room for improvement,” she continued. 

Earlier on the topic, Custis also said Watlington would be “laser-focused” on hiring Spanish-speaking teachers to aid the instruction of students where English isn’t their first language.

What to do about infrastructure?

When it comes to the state of Philly schools’ infrastructure, Custis said the district brought in an expert to do a review of its buildings and other pertinent infrastructure as evidence of the work being done on that front. 

However, what it’s left the district with is a lot of data and information, which still needs to be acted upon.

“I think we know a lot. I think we have a lot of intelligence on it. And I think what will happen now is some conversation about now that we have this data, what do we do with this?” she said.

Preparing for budget talks

With all that’s pitched in the Transition Team report, it means nothing if the district can’t get the funding needed during the budget process. 

That’s not to say all 91 recommendations will be covered in the next year, but if an effective third phase of Watlington’s plan is carried out, what is prioritized will be clear. Custis said the goal is to have those things figured out by December, when budget talks will begin.

As a negotiator, she also said Watlington was someone who “didn’t need any coaching,” which is a good sign for the district as budget talks approach.

“He's going to fight for us. He's going to fight for that funding,” was Custis’ parting message.

Watlington’s strategic report is due out in June.

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