Six months after he was chosen to lead the district and 110 days after he took office, Philadelphia superintendent Tony Watlington has reorganized his top management team as part of a broad effort to bolster student safety and improve academic achievement.
He stressed that safety was the primary concern of parents, school staff, students, and others he spoke to during his 100-day “learning and listening tour” after taking the helm on June 16.
“While violence continues to rise in our country, gun violence and the effects of the pandemic are having a devastating impact on the city of Philadelphia,” Watlington said at a Tuesday press conference, adding later that, “The physical, mental and emotional well-being of our students is our number one top priority.”
His comments came roughly a week after 14-year-old Nicolas Elizalde, a student in the district, was shot and killed and four other teenagers were wounded by gunfire near Roxborough High School. Asked what he would say to parents who are afraid to send their children to school after that incident, Watlington responded, “I would say to give us a chance. I would encourage parents to believe in us. I recognize there’s a crisis of confidence across the city, and we’re going to do our level best to win our parents’ trust.”
Although Watlington focused on student safety and well-being during his Tuesday remarks, the district also released a report on what he learned from the listening tour during his first 100 days in office. The report, which could help set the tone for his time as superintendent, highlighted four key areas where the district must improve: a lack of consistent and clear communication to parents and others, poor customer service, too many school facilities in poor condition, and low student achievement.
Watlington stressed the district must adopt new strategies to better serve students.
“Too many of our students are not graduating with the skills and credentials they need to get good paying jobs that provide life-changing opportunities and build generational wealth,” he said.
Watlington’s listening sessions have gotten mixed reviews from parents. While some praised Watlington for being friendly, others criticized him for not providing direct answers to questions they asked.
During Tuesday’s press conference, which was attended by most of the nine Board of Education members, Watlington said the district will focus more resources on helping students with their social and emotional health. Teachers and other school personnel will be trained to help students learn how to de-escalate conflict and use peer mediation.
“We’ve asked the question: How are the children? Many of our children have spoken very clearly that they’re not doing well,” said Watlington, referring to the listening sessions during his 100-day tour. “Some are afraid to go out in their neighborhood to play, some are afraid on their way to and from school.”
While the district would like to hire more counselors and support staff to help students cope with trauma, it currently lacks the money to do so, Watlington said. That means the district will instead rely on the additional professional development for existing staff instead.
However, the district will also step up its pursuit of federal, state, and private grant money to help with violence prevention strategies, he said. To help that effort, Watlington named Edwin Santana to be a community liaison. Among other tasks, he will pursue partnerships with local organizations in order to find financial contributions and in-kind services.
Watlington’s full transition team is expected to make its first report later this month, with a final strategic plan expected in May.
Watlington names new deputies, communications staff
As part of his administrative restructuring, Watlington named two new deputy superintendents.
One, Uri Monson, is being promoted from chief financial officer to deputy superintendent of operations. The other, ShaVon Savage, will be deputy superintendent of academic services. Savage is a former principal at Lea Elementary School who went on to found Mosaic School Support Services, a company that advises school leaders.
Monson said Tuesday that in his new role “there’s an opportunity for some better coordination” within the district.
Watlington also took steps to shore up the district’s communications office. He named Alexandra Coppadge to be chief of communications and customer service. She most recently had a similar role for Mastery Schools, a network of charter schools.
Meanwhile, Monique Braxton will be the new deputy chief of communications and the district’s spokesperson. She was previously a news anchor and reporter for MSNBC and NBC’s Philadelphia affiliate.
Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. Contact Dale at firstname.lastname@example.org.