Editor’s note: This article was updated to properly attribute material that appeared verbatim in a Philadelphia school district press release.
Not long after Philadelphia parent Stacey Mandel left a virtual listening session on July 27 with new Superintendent Tony Watlington, she found herself asking: Were Watlington and other school district leaders actually listening?
What spurred that question was a follow-up email she got asking her what specific actions she would like to see from the district. But the email came from a woman at a public relations firm working on behalf of the district, not the district itself.
“It’s being handled by PR professionals, not educators. The language used in parent communications sounds beautiful, but feels like smoke and mirrors,” Mandel said of the process, adding, “She asked for specifics in terms of actions we would like to see. I thought all of us were pretty clear during the session. I believe she was present during the session as well.”
Mandel is one of dozens of parents and educators who have participated in sessions where they could share their thoughts and ideas about what the district does well and where improvement is needed. The sessions are part of Watlington’s first 100 days on the job — he took over as superintendent in mid-June — and are expected to wrap up this month.
The district’s special admissions process, building safety, and staffing seem to be top concerns expressed by parents and teachers. Many families said the district has done a good job sharing clear directions about things like how to sign up for the 80 sessions and where to attend them. While some said Watlington didn’t directly address the issues they raised, others came away saying that the superintendent was friendly.
Parents also raised concerns about the district’s $450,000 contract with consulting firm, Joseph and Associates, which previously came under fire over the summer from those who see it as a poor way to use district resources.
Watlington will reveal his takeaways from the sessions in October.
According to the district, Watlington held 63 listening sessions, including meetings with advocates and community leaders, in his first 60 days. Over 28 sessions, Watlington was also in contact with 370 teachers and staff members, 380 school leaders, and 170 central office staff members.
The school district has barred media from attending these listening sessions, which have taken place online as well as in person, but Chalkbeat spoke with several people who have attended them.
In addition to the input from families and educators about what the district needs, Watlington will also hear from his 80-person transition team that includes community and education leaders, who will develop reports and recommendations for him.
Watlington and the transition team will evaluate the district’s capacity to achieve the school board’s vision through its “goals and guardrails” framework through November. Then Watlington, Joseph and Associates, and district staff will develop a five-year strategic plan by May 30.
Mixed response from parents
Parent Jenny Aiello, who has two children in district schools, highlighted concerns expressed about the consultant. Aiello said people pressed Watlington on why he isn’t relying more on people in Philadelphia to show him the ropes.
She said at one point Watlington did repeat his defense of the decision to hire Joseph and Associates, which is based in Tennessee. Watlington has previously said the consultant would help him “hit the ground running,” while the school board called hiring such a consultant “best practice.” (Shawn Joseph, president of Joseph and Associates and a former superintendent of Nashville, Tenn., schools, did not respond to requests for comment from Chalkbeat.)
Another issue that led people to push back on Watlington, Aiello said, was the number of teachers he has on his transition team. When Watlington highlighted the number of teachers on the team, and asked the audience whether people thought that was sufficient, Aiello said, “The participants thought he should have at least half of that group be teachers because they’re the ones who know the district.”
Aiello also said the sessions she attended did not have moderators and in general didn’t conform to what she was told about how they would be structured.
But Eugene Desyatnik, a parent of three students of neighborhood schools, who attended an in-person session said that when he raised concerns about facilities and the district not accepting free help, Watlington “listened, wrote down notes and genuinely seemed committed.”
Watlington said that “where he came from [his prior job in North Carolina] it was no Rockefelller-rich district, but the grass was mowed, buildings were cooled and clean, and he expected nothing less here,” Desyatnik recalled, adding that this observation from Watlington made him feel “surprisingly optimistic.”
District parent Adam Blyweiss, who also teaches graphic design at Jules E. Mastbaum Area Vocational Technical School, attended an online listening session in July for district staff, and another online session last month for parents and families, coordinated with community and parent groups. He said he was able to access both without any problems.
The staff session brought up working and learning conditions in buildings that Blyweiss felt were never adequately addressed under former Superintendent William Hite. Issues that staff discussed with Watlington ranged from aging buildings and the district’s African American history curriculum to support for English-language learners and teacher planning time.
Blyweiss said Watlington’s curiosity and personality seem sincere. But Blyweiss is concerned that regardless of how the superintendent presents himself, the district might be in a similar position to where it was a decade ago, when Superintendent William Hite took over. He said he doesn’t know how Watlington and the district will deal with the last decade’s worth of “wishful thinking, sensible ideas, and painful mistrust.”
“I feel like we’re once again staring down conditions for educational upheaval,” Blyweiss said “The last time we had a new superintendent at our doorstep with a plan for transition involving dispassionate outsiders, we lost more than schools, staff, and students. We lost a little bit of the city’s soul.”
Bureau Chief Johann Calhoun covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. He oversees Chalkbeat Philadelphia’s education coverage. Contact Johann at firstname.lastname@example.org.