New Superintendent Tony Watlington Is Here to Transform Philly Schools

His goal is downright audacious: to transform the city’s beleaguered school district into the fastest-improving urban district in the country. If you think he’s got no chance, you’ve obviously never met Tony Watlington.

tony watlington

Tony Watlington / Photography by Aaron Richter

Tony Watlington wasn’t naive. He knew about the challenges.

“The issues with facilities, asbestos, clean water — none of those surprised me,” he says. These were to be expected in a school district as old as Philadelphia’s, one that has a “chronic underfunding problem.”

He wanted to be superintendent anyway.

One of his first moves, when he assumed control of the sprawling district in June, was to embark on a “listening tour.” This made sense on a couple levels. As an outsider coming from North Carolina and with only a year and a half of previous experience as a superintendent, at a district with fewer than 20,000 students, Watlington knew he had some learning to do. He’s also possessed of an exceptionally quick metabolism for data and seems to legitimately enjoy being fed absurd amounts of information. So he fanned out across the city to hear from parents, teachers, principals — anyone, really — about what the district was and wasn’t doing well. West Philadelphia High School. Dobbins High School in North Philly. Girard Academic Music Program in South Philly. Ninety sessions in all. “People come back all the time saying, ‘He was really listening. He was taking notes,’” says school-board president Joyce Wilkerson. “And he does that. It’s not just performative.”

Watlington needed to analyze what he’d been hearing, so he had district staffers sort through the testimony and catalog it. There were few surprises. People said that teachers and principals were a strength. They also said the district wasn’t transparent and communicated poorly, and that the only way to get a good education was to get into one of its “criteria-based” schools, as opposed to neighborhood schools.

But then Watlington came across something that truly shocked him: “Nothing.” It was the third most popular response to a survey sent to parents asking what the district did well. The stunning part of “nothing” was that it wasn’t even an option on the multiple-choice survey. Parents had written it in on their own. (Adding to the confusion: The top response for what the district was doing well was “staffing,” while the top response for what it wasn’t doing well was … also “staffing.”)

Watlington had taken the job with idealistic notions of what it would mean to work in Philadelphia, thinking about how he wanted “to be a part of helping the place where our Declaration of Independence was signed make sure that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is something that all of the children and families in this historic city can benefit from and actualize.” He considers Philadelphia one of the world’s great cities — alongside Paris, London, Cairo, Tokyo. But the survey forced him to a painful conclusion: “We have a crisis of confidence in the school district.” Maybe a crisis of confidence more broadly. When he asked parents on his listening tour whether they agreed Philly was a great city, he discovered that very few did. There was a steady drip of pessimism — one that trickled down to the district.

It’s not difficult to understand why. The school district, the eighth largest in the country, faces an extensive list of challenges: nearly $5 billion in deferred maintenance; buildings with asbestos; only 60 percent of its facilities with adequate air-­conditioning. As for the primary matter of educating children: 36 percent of students in grades three through eight read at grade level; for math, the figure is 22 percent. Thirty-eight percent of Pennsylvania schools’ funding comes from state dollars — only seven states receive a lower percentage — ­making districts disproportionately reliant on local tax income. This results in people in wealthier districts often paying lower taxes while still receiving more money per student compared to poorer districts. In Philadelphia, where 76 percent of students come from low-income families and 15 percent are ­English-language learners, the school district is shortchanged roughly $5,500 per student, according to an analysis that takes into account the higher costs of educating high-need students. Meanwhile, enrollment in charter schools, which end up costing the district more per student than regular public schools, has risen as district enrollment has dropped, resulting in fewer resources for the students who remain.

“I think the good thing about me having a fresh outside perspective is, I don’t see that,” Watlington says of the challenges. Sure, they exist, but he prefers to look at all the district has going for it.

Lucky for him, there’s a more optimistic way of framing things. His predecessor, Bill Hite, whose 10-year tenure was among the longest in district history, took charge of a school system that was controlled by Republicans in Harrisburg through the School Reform Commission. Hite inherited a projected $1 billion deficit over five years and began his tenure by closing 23 schools. By the time he announced his departure, though, he’d balanced the budget. The school board had returned to local control. Academically, the district hadn’t gotten much better, but it hadn’t gotten worse, either. Reading scores improved by four percentage points and math scores by five. All of which is why Watlington believes the table is set for him to make Philadelphia the “fastest-improving urban school district in the country.” (It isn’t lost on him that when it comes to being the fastest-improving anything, it helps to be starting from a baseline of hardly improving at all.)

The question, for anyone who has spent time thinking about the School District of Philadelphia, is obvious: Fastest-improving — really? Or, to be slightly more charitable: How? Watlington’s listening tour was step one. “I have no right to just show up in Philadelphia one day and say these are going to be our goals,” he says. Step two was assembling a transition team of more than 100 people, which spent four months convening and ultimately issued a report with 91 recommendations. And now, in the final step, Watlington is developing a five-year plan for the district, which should be completed in the spring. So far, he has seemed to focus more on diagnosing problems than on offering prescriptions.

The stakes, as they always seem to be with the district, are immensely high. Students are still recovering from the disruptions of the pandemic and virtual instruction that caused significant learning loss. For once, the district, which got $1.1 billion in American Rescue Plan funds in 2021, doesn’t have to worry about imminently falling off a fiscal cliff and into an abyss of financial doom. If this is starting to feel like a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reset the district — and a healthy school district, almost everyone in the city agrees, is the best long-term tool to combat poverty in Philadelphia — well, that’s because it kind of is.

The school board has already tasked Watlington with one monumentally ambitious goal: In the next five years, he needs to boost third-grade reading and math proficiency levels by 30 percentage points. You read that right: 30. In five years. In the very same district that improved five points over the past 10. “I think our standards are too low,” Watlington says. “I think our expectations are too low.” He honestly believes this goal is reachable, for a simple reason: “Everywhere I’ve worked, we’ve always gotten better. Always.”

The School District of Philadelphia is extremely large. This may seem obvious, but it’s worth considering just how gigantic it is. Including charters, it has 198,645 students — more than the populations of Guam, Curaçao, and several island nations. Its budget is $4.4 billion — larger than the gross domestic product of Bhutan, Greenland or Liberia.

As with sovereign nations, it can be difficult to make immediate, impactful changes. The status quo often trends toward stagnation and, well, the status quo. As superintendent, Watlington seems to be acting less like the head bureaucrat and more like a best-selling author on a book tour. Far from hunkering down in district headquarters on North Broad, he’s going to great lengths to show face. He set a goal to visit all 216 district schools in his first year and says he spends half his time out of the office, touring facilities or meeting with politicians and community members.

I think the good thing about me having a fresh outside perspective is, I don’t see that,” Tony Watlington says. The challenges exist, but he prefers to look at all the district has going for it.

On a Wednesday morning in November, as Watlington nears his hundredth school visit, he finds himself at Walter B. Saul High School in Roxborough. He greets the principal, Sam Howell, an outdoorsy-looking guy in leather work boots and a Marmot vest. Watlington is now six months into his tenure, though there are still a few signs that he’s green. When Howell mentions that he just came to Saul this year from Penn Treaty, Watlington perks up and says, in his lilting Southern drawl, “Penn Treaty — over by the University of Pennsylvania?” Howell gently corrects him: “No, that’s Penn Alexander.”

Watlington wears a gray suit with a school district logo prominent on the lapel. He is 52 years old and maintains an immaculately trimmed pencil-thin mustache that conveys sophistication as well as a hint of mischief. On the tour, he makes brief three-minute pit stops in various classrooms, mostly to chitchat with students in hushed tones. Then he’s off to the next class.

As far as Philadelphia schools go, Saul is highly unorthodox: It’s an agricultural school where the four fields of study are horticulture, food science, natural resource management, and animal science. There’s a farm with cows and sheep, two greenhouses full of plants, and a garage-like room that smells of gasoline and is littered with (mostly non-functioning) heavy machinery. A group of senior horticulture kids is working on a proposed display for the Philadelphia Flower Show. The sophomores and juniors are on a field trip to the Morris Arboretum. You get the feeling that if every school had Saul’s Hallmark-card energy, the district would be in a better place.

But even at Saul, there are hints of the broader challenges Watlington is up against. Earlier this year, one of Saul’s students, Nicolas Elizalde, a 14-year-old freshman, was killed — one of five students shot as they were leaving a football scrimmage at Roxborough High School. A few weeks after Watlington’s Saul visit, four more students would be shot right after school let out, this time at Overbrook High. As Watlington walks down a stairwell, he points out a camera overhead and asks if they work. “No, they’re terrible,” Howell says. “We have no security whatsoever here in the building.”

While Saul’s campus doesn’t have much of a security problem, just a few miles away, at Dobbins High School in North Philly, the Inquirer reported in November that students have been letting outsiders into the building — there are too many entrances for staff to effectively monitor them — frequently resulting in chaos. Fights occur regularly. According to the report, a school-district employee attempting to stop a group of kids from smoking weed in the bathroom was attacked and had to be hospitalized.

In response to the various safety challenges, Watlington announced in December the district would spend more than $1 million to expand two initiatives, one that pays community members to watch over students as they go to and from certain schools, and another that stations cops outside schools. (Roxborough High was already part of the former program.)

Watlington calls himself a “teacher-and-principal-centric” superintendent, and it’s in service of this that he’s spending so much time in the field. “When it comes to student academic learning, research says that the single most important factor is a highly qualified and well-supported teacher, not who the superintendent is,” he explains. But teachers, principals and all district staff have been feeling burnt out by the stresses of educating through the pandemic. Which is to say there’s a morale-boost strategy behind Watlington’s visits as well. When he stops by the main entrance of Saul, the security guard standing next to the metal detector reacts as if she’s seen the Second Coming. “It’s my honor!” she says. “You gotta get my picture! Come on. Oh, goodness, it’s a pleasure to meet you!”

Watlington describes his management philosophy by making a meteorological analogy. “I’m always thinking about this thing called virga,” he says. “Virga is the rain that falls in the clouds but never hits the ground.” Watlington doesn’t want the school district’s work to be virga; he wants it to be regular hitting-the-ground rain. “How is it being received, supported or implemented in schools? I want to know how teachers and principals see the work of the district, because sometimes they don’t always match up,” he says. It’s a perfectly reasonable sentiment, although the cynic might note that Watlington may want to find a new metaphor — one where the school district isn’t a storm cloud.

If you were searching for someone who epitomizes the institution of public education, you could do worse than Tony Watlington. He attended public schools his entire life, from kindergarten to his PhD. His résumé reads like a school’s org chart: bus driver, custodian, high-school teacher, elementary-school principal, high-school principal, chief of schools, superintendent. He got the bus-driver gig at 17 and spent the mornings driving kids before setting off for class himself.

The youngest of seven siblings, Watlington describes himself as a “free-and-reduced-lunch kid” and his family as “economically poor but aspirationally rich.” (In high school, he worked part-time in the tobacco fields to help pay for school clothes.) His dad was an Army vet who fought in Vietnam; his mom was a “domestic engineer” who raised the kids. He was born in Fort Dix, New Jersey, but when his dad came back from the war with PTSD, the family split. Watlington moved with his mom to rural Bunnlevel, North Carolina.

As a kid, Watlington was fascinated by history; his mother bought him a set of World Book Encyclopedias that he read cover to cover. In seventh grade, he won a prize for his work in the subject. Watlington’s experience in the public-school system helped crystallize his beliefs about education. “There’s a middle-class code book in this country that a lot of parents don’t know how to access, and we don’t explicitly teach it,” he says. He mentions the notoriously complicated FAFSA application for financial aid. “Tony Watlington is no smarter than the person out here who didn’t go to college,” he says. “Sometimes it’s a matter of access and opportunity.” Or a seventh-grade teacher who gives you an award that makes you think you might have a future in your academic passion.

As an undergrad at North Carolina A&T — Watlington was the first in his family to attend college — he was an economics major interested in inequality. He came to the conclusion that the only way to disrupt inequity was “through ensuring that people get a good education — not an adequate, not a basic, but a very good education.” He changed his major to history and thought he might be a professor, or even a university dean or president. In the meantime, he settled for class president: He ran for the position as a freshman but lost, then returned the next year to win as a sophomore, and later served as student body president. 

After getting a graduate degree in history from Ohio State, Watlington began his career as a teacher in Guilford County, North Carolina. He taught history for four years; in that brief span, he won the district’s teacher of the year award and was a semifinalist for a statewide honor. But he had his sights set elsewhere. “As soon as I got in the door as a teacher, I knew I wanted to be the principal and superintendent,” he says. Nor did he keep his ambitions private. “He was one of the first people I ever worked with at the school level who ever expressed an outright direct desire to be a superintendent,” says Jimmi Williams, executive director of a nonprofit trying to reduce dropout rates in the state, who worked closely with him.

Watlington is only just starting to outline a specific suite of policies he wants to implement in Philadelphia, but you can get a sense of his methods from his time in North Carolina. In Guilford County, where he worked for 20 years in administration and eventually became chief of schools — the second in command for the third-largest district in the state, with 70,000 students — Watlington created a program called “Let’s Talk” that helped parents share concerns directly with the district. He also made a habit of reassigning the best teachers — or in some cases actively poaching them from other districts — to the schools with the biggest needs. If he needed to pay teachers an extra $20,000 for changing schools, he’d do it. (He has announced a similar strategy in Philadelphia, offering $5,000 bonuses to retain and recruit teachers in 50 specific schools.) According to Watlington, his approach bore fruit. “Every group of students improved academically,” he says. “Every racial group, students with disabilities, English-language learners, students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.” In Rowan-Salisbury, where he worked before coming to Philly, he followed a similar playbook. He was superintendent there for just a year and a half, but he touts the district’s improved third-grade literacy ranking, which went from 96th place to 74th in the state.

One of Watlington’s central beliefs has to do with the way schools treat underperforming students. “We will never remediate our way to improvement, and we certainly won’t remediate our way to excellence,” he says. In 2001, he created a program in Guilford in which struggling 19- and 20-year-old high-school students at risk of dropping out attended classes at North Carolina A&T. Instead of trying to put them through summer school, he put them in a more rigorous academic environment. Attendance rates rose, student proficiency increased by 12 percentage points, and the district ended up turning Watlingtons program into two permanent high schools.

“When you get stuck in chronic systems of underperformance, it causes people to either blame the children, blame the parents and community, or blame themselves,” Watlington says. But as a teacher, he saw firsthand the pitfalls of this way of thinking. At one point, he had a student named Wendell; Wendell was a special-education kid who had a speech impediment, and many of his teachers didn’t believe he needed to be in advanced courses. Watlington disagreed. “I knew this young man was smart, and I believed in him,” he says. Many years later, Wendell emailed Watlington out of the blue to tell him he’d just gotten his doctorate. Watlington printed out the email and keeps it in his desk to this day. “That’s all the validation I need,” he says.

When the school board announced its finalists for superintendent in March, the candidates shared a few common traits. All three were men. None were from Philadelphia. This being the newly constituted school board’s first chance to hire its own superintendent, it had embarked on a significant public-engagement process that included some 50 meetings with community groups. The choice of finalists came as something of a shock. A small activist watchdog group called the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, or APPS, held a protest in a bid to force the board to start the process anew. State Senator Tony Williams, a major charter-school advocate, called for the school board to hold off on naming a superintendent until after the 2023 mayoral election.

The board declined to do that. Instead, it doubled down on public engagement, holding a series of forums with the finalists. This was surely the moment Watlington knew he was the right fit for the job. He has a gift for oration and is prone to giving intelligent speeches that leave you feeling, if not inspired, then at least confident in his abilities, so it’s no wonder he emerged as the best option. “We weren’t looking just to hear somebody say buzzwords. We dug into their past record to see if they had really moved the needle,” says Wilkerson, the school-board president.

It also helped, as the local press dug into Watlington, that people in North Carolina raved about him. They still do. “Education has been the love of his life,” says U.S. Congresswoman Alma Adams, who first got to know Watlington as a member of the Greensboro City School Board in the early 1990s. (Watlington, who’s divorced with three children, the youngest of whom is about to start college, more or less agrees. “I’m absolutely married to the job,” he says.) Michael Priddy, a retired North Carolina superintendent, says of Watlington, “I’ve seen a lot of slick superintendents. We call ’em ‘professional superintendents.’ And their profession is moving from one place to another and leaving a lot of debris behind. Tony is the opposite of that. He’s in it for the schools, the teachers and the students.” In private conversations with close confidants, Watlington expressed little hesitation about the enormity of the task. “Not one moment did I get from Tony Watlington that he had any doubt about his ability to go to Philadelphia and be successful,” says Williams, the nonprofit director.

All the kind words in the world, though, don’t change the fact that to become superintendent here is to wed a district, and a public, that has no shortage of trust issues. When Watlington, in one of his first acts as superintendent, asked the board to approve a $450,000 contract to a consulting firm in Tennessee to help guide his transition process, critics started coming out of the woodwork. The optics weren’t great: Here was a cash-starved district, and the new $340,000-a-year superintendent needed how much money to get up to speed? Also not great: The money was going to a firm with no ties to Philly whose CEO, Shawn Joseph, was a former superintendent in Nashville whose tenure there ended amid a series of controversies, including allegations that he failed to report teacher misconduct cases to the state. The state board ultimately recommended suspending Joseph’s license for a year. (Joseph has said that paperwork errors were to blame for the reporting failures.) The APPS contingent was furious. “It kind of puts a crimp in your honeymoon phase,” says Lisa Haver, a former district teacher who’s one of the group’s co-founders.

tony watlington

Watlington says he believes “there’s a different story” about Joseph and that he received “glowing recommendations” from people who worked with him, including from the current board president in Nashville. The district improved under Joseph’s tenure, Watlington says, and he suggests that much of the criticism against Joseph came from one disgruntled board member. (The subtext he doesn’t mention is that Joseph was the first Black superintendent in Nashville history, and the board member in question is white.) “I will just speak to the fact that the district was making some significant progress in a number of areas,” Watlington says. “It did not come without controversy. … So I think that’s part and parcel of improving systems that don’t work for Black and brown children.”

Despite that early blip, many of the constituencies that have historically sparred with Philly superintendents seem to like Watlington. “He came across as an educator,” says Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan, who backed his candidacy early on. Of course, Hite, who authorized 4,000 layoffs in his second year as superintendent, was an educator, too, so what’s the difference? For one thing, Jordan served on the transition team for this new superintendent, as he often does, and he felt the experience was unique. “I learned a lot on this team, which I don’t recall ever happening before,” he says. He feels Watlington is “a lot more transparent in the way in which he is managing the district.” Watlington proactively convened a meeting with the major unions to let them know he sought a positive relationship. “He has an open-door policy,” says principals union head Robin Cooper, who also had been a Hite critic.

It would be woefully premature — not to mention more than a little naive — to presume harmony from here on out. And for all of Hite’s detractors, it’s ultimately to his credit that for what feels like the first time in ages, the Philadelphia superintendent appears to be operating from a position of relative strength. The usual budgetary fears remain — the district projects that barring changes, it will be operating with a deficit by 2025 — but there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic. If the state courts decide, in a landmark case currently before the Commonwealth Court, that Pennsylvania’s school funding system is unconstitutional, Philadelphia could stand to gain. Democrats control the state House for the first time in more than a decade, which should give Watlington a friendlier ear when it comes time — and the time will come — to ask for more state funding. And, most importantly, there’s the unprecedented cushion that is the district’s American Rescue Plan funds, which Watlington says will be spent on everything from facilities upgrades to summer programs to counselors and mental-health support staff.

But what are the specific changes Watlington will make to get Philadelphia on the path to becoming the fastest-improving urban district in the country? This is the single biggest question facing him, and it also happens to be the one to which, for now, there are the fewest answers. His transition team report, with its 91 recommendations, provides a few clues (offer more Advanced Placement courses, launch an attendance-monitoring system, improve access to criteria-based schools for marginalized kids), but many of the takeaways are either extremely vague (“Co-define, operationalize, and drive accountability to shared behaviors, expectations and processes to support a culture of trust and respect both internally and externally”) or the kind of thing that you’d hope wouldn’t require a transition team to recognize (“Identify the district priorities at the start of the budget process”).

For now, the school district isn’t so much a rain cloud as a giant fog. Watlington is preaching that in due time, the strategy will reveal itself. “People who walk into school districts and say, ‘I’ve got a silver bullet; we’re just going to lower class size, and we’re just going to hire more counselors’ — it may sound sexy, but I will assure you, it does not work over time,” he says. “You have to have a system that analyzes what’s working, what’s not working.” This analysis, he says, takes time. “And so for people who want a quick, easy sound bite, that’s not Tony Watlington. Tony Watlington does know how to improve academic outcomes for students.”

At the school board’s monthly meeting in November, Watlington sits in a carpeted conference room at district headquarters on Broad Street. These meetings are often marathons; Watlington’s first one began at 4 p.m. and went until 12:14 in the morning. In a recent pleasant development, though, the meetings have gone from hellaciously long to just plain long. Wilkerson jokes that hardly anyone is coming to testify anymore, which she chalks up to the fact that “we’ve all been out there listening.”

On this day, at least, Wilkerson is mostly right. Twelve members of the public — many of them easily identifiable beforehand, with their buttons pinned on jackets, their harried notes and incredulous muttering prior to the public comment period — have signed up to speak. A third of them are members of APPS; one person watches the proceedings peering through a literal periscope, part of an ongoing protest of the public seats having been moved back in the conference room to make space for tables for district staff. (They’re covered with blue tablecloths, and APPS members, feeling displaced, have taken to calling the arrangement “the blue moat” … hence the periscope.)

The first public comment is from Lisa Haver, who gets up and bemoans the state of education nationwide. “Right-wing forces want to purge libraries,” she says. “We don’t have that problem. We don’t have any school libraries.” (In 2021, the Inquirer reported that there are fewer than 10 librarians across the entire district — the worst ratio in the country.) Her microphone is cut off after her allotted two minutes of testimony, but not before she gets in a shot at the vagueness of the district’s plans. “When you get past the word salad, we’re talking about more of the same,” she says. “Improving outcomes, rigor — all that stuff means more testing.” (Watlington has said testing is a useful tool for measuring progress but not the “end-all, be-all.” He also says he has no problem with his once-a-month transformation into a punching bag. “Somebody told me I’m a glutton for punishment,” he says. “That may be true.”) More members of APPS get up to testify; one of them, speaking out against a proposed $370,000 professional development contract, suddenly breaks into song. “Plainspoken language I’m afraid we’ll never get,” she sings. “Oh, why can’t consultants learn to set a good example?”

It’s difficult to know what to make of it all. From the district’s perspective, you could wave away much of the criticism by pointing out that with so few people signed up for comment, these were the most hard-core Philadelphia school-board obsessives. On the other hand, the obsessives — once you get past the weird props and mid-testimony singing — make some fair points. There is a decent amount of word salad. The district has made some choices that feel like they were cooked up at McKinsey, like creating a new position called “chief of communications and customer service.” (As if most parents in the district have much choice when it comes to being “customers.”) And if you’ve been watching the district sputter for the past decade, it’s easy to understand the frustration over the lack of specifics. On the other hand, Watlington has laid out his goals for boosting student achievement, and he’ll ultimately be judged on whether he can reach them.

One of the final people to testify at the school-board meeting in November is a woman in a white dress and headscarf named Gail Clouden. Clouden has been an education activist for 35 years, and she assails the district’s consistent lack of progress. “I’ve seen opportunists, neutralizers, gatekeepers, road blockers and liars in this district,” she says. “I’ve watched neighborhood after neighborhood suffer. Enough is enough.” She suggests there should be “class-action lawsuits done for all this failure.” By now, she’s shouting at the board, and when her mic is cut after two minutes, she continues with an even louder, raspy shout: “These elaborate plans you come up with DON’T WORK!” She points directly at Watlington and the school board. “Stop playing games!”

Watlington takes a sip from a plastic water bottle. He nods along calmly. He has the look of a man who is at peace. Who will happily sit through hours more of verbal beatings if need be. Through it all, he barely breaks eye contact.

Published as “Doctor Turn-Around” in the January 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.