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Philadelphia's Search for a New School Superintendent Continues

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Philadelphia’s Board of Education announced the three finalists to replace Superintendent William Hite – all men, all experienced educators, and none with ties to Philadelphia.

The finalists for the role are John Davis, chief of schools at Baltimore City public schools, Krish Mohip, the deputy chief education officer for the Illinois State Board of Education, and Tony Watlington, the superintendent of a school district in North Carolina.

Each finalist is scheduled to participate in a town hall one day next week, preceded by smaller meetings earlier in the day – one with parents, one with students, and one with teachers and principals. All these meetings will be livestreamed through Facebook.

The school board invited Philadelphia residents to nominate themselves to be chosen for the small groups – 11 parents, 11 teachers and principals, and 11 students.

According to the schedule, Davis’ town hall will be in Philadelphia on Monday, Mohip’s on Tuesday, and Watlington’s on Wednesday.

“The upcoming public meetings and town halls are the next opportunity for Philadelphians to participate in the process,” said Joyce Wilkerson, board president.

Wilkerson said that the board hoped to make a decision during the week of March 21.

Philadelphia has not chosen a superintendent from within its own ranks since Constance Clayton, who ran the district from 1982 to 1993. Wilkerson said that “all the candidates understand that they have to make an effort to get to know Philadelphia.”

Davis is a career educator who started as a middle school math teacher in Baltimore and has held high-ranking positions in both the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., districts, both of which have similar demographics to Philadelphia. In Baltimore, he was the founding principal of New Era Academy High School, an innovative school within the district. He was also the interim chancellor of Washington, D.C., schools in 2016 after Kaya Henderson left.

When he was in Washington, D.C., the district had steadily improving graduation rates, and led big-city districts in math and reading growth on the 2013 and 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, according to the Philadelphia district.

Mohip started as a kindergarten teacher in Chicago, rising through the ranks to be Chief of Schools. In 2016, he became the CEO of schools in Youngstown, Ohio, as part of a state takeover of what the state identified as a “failing” district. This takeover was opposed by teachers and some Board of Education members.

But under his leadership, according to Philadelphia Board of Education Vice President Letitia Egea-Hinton, Youngstown’s graduation rate improved 11 percentage points and freshman academies increased the percentage of ninth-graders who stayed “on track” from 63% to 94% in one year. He left that job in 2019 and returned to Illinois. Mohip said he sought to leave his job in Youngstown in part because vandals targeted his house multiple times.

Mohip was recently in contention to be Cincinnati’s superintendent but missed out on the job earlier this year.

Reached Friday, Mohip said he has a cousin who taught in the district for 31 years who’s shared a lot with him about the schools. He added he’d also bring his experience as a former kindergarten teacher to the district as it looks to boost early literacy, working to expand access to preschool and lengthen the day for pre-kindergartners.

“I have seen nationally where we target third grade as the area where we need to ensure all students are reading at grade level,” he said. “If chosen, I would push on that metric to say that we really need to ensure that students are reading at grade level by the end of first grade.”

Mohip said he also would focus on ensuring federal COVID relief dollars are being used both to close academic gaps and provide wraparound and trauma support. Drawing on his experience with high rates of gun violence in Chicago and Youngstown, he said he would try to expand after-school programs and work opportunities for Philadelphia’s students.

Watlington – now the superintendent in North Carolina’s Rowan-Salisbury school district, which has 18,000 students in 33 schools – has been a high school teacher, assistant principal, and principal. Under his leadership, Rowan-Salisbury’s ranking with respect to third graders’ reading proficiency increased from 96 to 74, out of the state’s 115 districts. Prior to joining Rowan-Salisbury, he was Chief of Schools in North Carolina’s Guilford County district, which enrolls 72,000 students.

In a virtual event last year, Watlington said that while working in Guilford County schools, he and other officials figured out how to accelerate academic progress for a wide variety of student groups. But he also said eliminating performance gaps between students won’t be accomplished unless other societal issues are addressed.

“The pandemic shined a bright flashlight on issues of equity, how our students are so differently situated in terms of their … internet access, their access to devices, their access to teachers and tutors, and things of that nature,” he said, adding that students in racially and socioeconomically isolated schools often lack access to high-quality teachers.

Watlington also cautioned against relying too heavily on a single test to judge whether students should gain access to gifted and talented programs and advanced courses. “Advanced Placement courses are not for the elite. They are for the prepared,” he said.

They have to make an effort to get to know Philadelphia.’

Tackling staff shortages, addressing building safety concerns, and getting students back on track after three school years interrupted by the pandemic will be among the tasks facing the new leader of the more than 120,000-student district.

Egea-Hinton said Mayor Jim Kenney had met with all the candidates.

“The Board’s priority has always been for the person chosen to lead the district to meet or exceed the job profile criteria,” she said. “We want the most capable person to take on this important and visible role.”

She added that “there is no candidate that will check every box that you or I have, but I’m confident the three candidates … are well qualified and will be well positioned to fill this role.”

Hite will leave his job in August after 10 years to lead the educational nonprofit KnowledgeWorks. He will also be the inaugural superintendent in residence and executive fellow at Yale University. Hite has said he will be a part of the process to find his replacement, and plans to remain in his current role with the district through the end of the 2021-2022 school year.

“We look forward to collaborating with him to support a smooth operational transition and knowledge transfer to a new superintendent. We are committed to creating an environment where the next superintendent will be well-resourced and set up for success,” Egea-Hinton said.

The search to find Hite’s successor began in October with 17 in-person and virtual listening sessions across the city. A 13-member advisory committee of community leaders, business representatives, clergy, and educators was assembled in December.

Kalyn Belsha contributed to this report.

Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in the city. She is a former president of the Education Writers Association. Contact Dale at dmezzacappa@chalkbeat.org.

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