‘Problem solver,’ ‘change agent’: Philadelphians describe what they want in next school leader

A group of volunteers stand around a table in front of a school with grass and bushes.
Philadelphia school board member Lisa Salley, right, with district volunteers in front of Overbrook Elementary School in October getting input from parents in the search for a new superintendent. Standing from left, Kristyn Aldrich, Walter Dixon, Marcia Hall and Deanna Scott. (Johann Calhoun / Chalkbeat)

A coalition builder with educational experience and an unwavering commitment to equity.

A leader committed to transparency, effective communication, and setting the benchmark for Philadelphia students to compete in a global society.

A person with a track record of listening to, engaging with, and working alongside diverse communities in an urban setting.

These were some of the values and qualities Philadelphia’s Board of Education heard often from the public over 25 days of gathering input on what Philadelphians wanted to see in the next public school leader.

The findings were released Thursday in the board’s community engagement report, which detailed feedback from nearly 6,000 residents on what they desire in the next superintendent. It also highlights the strengths and challenges of the district, a snapshot of the last 10 years, and points in its accountability plan to improve student achievement, called “goals and guardrails.”

Superintendent William Hite announced late September that he would step down in August, staying through the process to find a replacement to lead the more than 120,000-student school district. The search started in October, with efforts to get public feedback going through November across councilmanic districts.

The board engaged directly with 1,317 participants via five school-based surveying sessions, six in-person listening sessions, and 37 virtual listening sessions.

“We need someone who is committed to communication with school communities, transparency with parents and the public, and accountability for themselves and senior staff,” said one unnamed participant in the Oct. 27 listening session.

The board heard a desire for the next superintendent to have experience building a strong cabinet. These leaders, the community says, must be able to see where gaps exist and fill them; the superintendent must be able to recruit, retain and manage a diverse team and hold them accountable.

Equally important to residents is the next superintendent’s track record of running a major system similar to that of the school district. They want knowledge of finances, facilities and infrastructure, and equitable distribution of resources.

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They also want a leader who can manage predictable and unpredictable events, such as staffing shortages, transportation issues, and internal district relations.

“We can teach the artist to be a technician; we can’t teach the technician to be an artist. We need someone who will understand the important roles of teachers, families, and students to this district,” said an unnamed participant in the Nov. 4 listening session.

Most individuals want the new superintendent to be an effective communicator — a “problem solver,” a “change agent,” with a “people-first approach to decision making.”

Philadelphians shared a desire for the next schools leader to “understand.” The board also heard that families are looking for a superintendent who sees inclusion as an imperative.

Diversity was evident in who participated in the engagement process — well over half of the participants self-identified as Black, Hispanic or Latino, Asian-American, Pacific Islander or multi-racial.

Of the participants, 25.23% were parents or guardians, 22.98% were teachers, 18.46% were district staff, and 11.31% were students.

SInce the process started, the board worked 53 community organizations to host or participate in 48 surveying and listening sessions across the city. Groups included the Center for Black Educator Development, the Chinese Disabilities Project, and the Muslim Youth Center of Philadelphia.

The official job listing is scheduled to be released Dec. 3 by Isaacson, Miller, the search firm the board hired to help with the selection process. Members of the superintendent search advisory committee, or SSAC, are scheduled to be announced Dec. 7.

Interviews are set to begin at the beginning of 2022.

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