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Watlington transition team makes recommendations to improve Philadelphia schools

A man in a dark suit and white collared shirt speaks while sitting in a chair in front of stained glass.

A team of local and national leaders on Superintendent Tony Watlington’s transition team released their report for district success Thursday.

Johann Calhoun / Chalkbeat

Student achievement, communications, school repairs, and district funding are some of the top challenges for Philadelphia schools targeted in a 91-recommendation report released Thursday by a transition team formed three months ago by Superintendent Tony Watlington.

The report from the team, composed of more than 100 local and national educators, parents, and union and non-profit leaders, was presented before the school board meeting. The team was charged with identifying strengths and weaknesses in the district that Watlington wants to see become one of the fastest improved in the country.

Key areas for improvement

The report pointed to three main issues:

  • A need for improved communication and customer service strategies. Recommendations included launching a two-way communications and discussion management tool, as well as developing a customer service training program and establishing a process for communicating the district’s priorities.
  • Greater coordination and collaboration within the district to operate more efficiently. The plan recommended maintaining work groups to solve problems, creating opportunities for teachers to collaborate, and establishing a development team to find partners for the district.
  • Shared accountability and evaluation for student outcomes. The team’s report recommended developing tools like dashboards and infographics for use by students, families, and staff. Other recommendations including launching more frequent data collection for non-academic areas and increased daily monitoring of different areas related to schools in an effort to track progress.

Of the 91 recommendations, 58 are considered short-term and should be accomplished over the next year or two, and 33 should be implemented over the next three to five years. 

Though he doesn’t know how much the district would need financially to accommodate the recommendations, Watlington is prepared to seek more local and state money to fund improvements from City Hall and Harrisburg. 

The team identified the following strengths for the district: establishing fiscal stability, dissolving the former School Reform Commission, staff’s efforts to support the students, and public and private partnerships.

Watlington said he will address the recommendations in the five-year strategic plan that’s scheduled to be released in Spring 2023.

The one recommendation Watlington said that he’d never considered was adding a small group of principals to his leadership team.

“That caught my attention, because I’ve never read that before in a transition team report, and have never done that or considered it but it’s one that really caught my attention,” Watlington said.

Sub-groups studied critical topics

The team was broken into five sub-groups that studied student achievement, operations, anti-racist district culture, community engagement and communications, and well-rounded school experiences for students.

The student achievement sub-group stressed the need for an alignment of district people, the ability to articulate a clear curriculum, and the need to launch a textbook adoption process in ELA/English that includes teachers, principals, and special education leadership.

The operations sub-group recommended the district implement a transparent budgeting process, execute a master facilities plan, and develop a teacher career ladder.

The culture sub-group recommended the district create equitable access to criteria-based schools and develop an anti-racist learning center.

The community engagement sub-group would like the district to expand its organizational capacity, and re-envision the district’s approach to data and information gathering.

The school experiences sub-group recommended every school have a no-cost, after-school program and ensure all students have access to after-school athletic programs.

The team was led by co-chairs Andrea L. Custis, former president and CEO of the Urban League of Philadelphia, and Guy Generals, president of Community College of Philadelphia.

According to the district, 14% of the team members were school leaders, 11% local education experts, 9% parents, and 7% were national education experts. Seventeen students provided feedback as transition team advisors.

The team included familiar names, such as Uri Monson, district chief financial officer; Henderson Lewis Jr., former superintendent of New Orleans Public Schools, and Camika Royal, associate professor of urban education at Loyola University and author of “Not Paved for Us: Black Educators and Public School Reform in Philadelphia.”

Support for the transition leaders was facilitated by former Nashville superintendent Shawn Joseph and former Washington County Public Schools superintendent Elizabeth Molina Morgan. A month after Watlington’s hire, the school board approved $450,000 to pay Joseph’s firm, Joseph and Associates, to help with the transition.

“Absolutely. I think it’s worth every penny we’re spending,” Watlington told Chalkbeat Thursday. “It’s premature to say right now, but very likely, we’ll be able to reduce the forecast of that contract. I feel really good about the work that’s happened today. And I think we’ve been very good stewards of the public’s tax dollars.”

Five-year plan due in spring

In the next phase of Watlington’s transition process, Joseph’s firm will craft along with the superintendent and other district staff a five-year strategic plan in the spring of 2023.

Watlington ended the first phase of the transition process earlier this month by releasing his findings from his 100-day listening and learning tours, in which he met with parents and teachers on what needed to be done to improve the district’s learning environment. The tour got mixed reviews from parents who either thought the sessions were helpful in getting to know Watlington personally or, conversely, felt the superintendent didn’t answer their questions.

“The tour gave me the opportunity to learn what people really think and what we aspire to be in the future. I want to say thank you to the nearly 3,000 individuals who took the time to be engaged in the process,” Watlington said at Thursday’s school board meeting.

There was no presentation of the Board of Education’s system of accountability called “goals and guardrails” at Thursday’s board meeting in order to focus on the transition team’s report.

Correction: A previous version of the story incorrectly stated Watlington never considered developing stronger partnerships between schools and the superintendent and the district.

Bureau Chief Johann Calhoun covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. He oversees Chalkbeat Philadelphia’s education coverage. Contact Johann at jcalhoun@chalkbeat.org.

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