Watlington revamps Philadelphia schools leadership in bid to accelerate academic gains

Exterior of the School District of Philadelphia building.
The Philadelphia school district’s main office building. Superintendent Tony Watlington is overhauling his leadership team and creating new positions focused on curriculum and special education. (Emma Lee / WHYY)

In what he says is an effort to accelerate lagging student achievement in the district, Philadelphia Superintendent Tony Watlington is reorganizing his top management team and conducting a national search for three key positions. 

Watlington is eliminating the position of chief of schools, now held by Evelyn Nunez, and creating two associate superintendents, one for elementary schools and one for secondary schools. Nunez will be put in charge of elementary schools, and Tomas Hanna, now the chief of talent for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, will return to the district — where he was once a principal and labor negotiator — to lead secondary schools. 

The district also plans to conduct a national search for two new positions Watlington has created: chief of curriculum and instruction, and chief of special education and diverse learners. There will also be a national search for the deputy superintendent of operations position.

The shake-up comes roughly half a year into Watlington’s tenure as superintendent; during that time, his mantra has been that Philadelphia should become the “fastest improving large urban school district in the country.” But the district’s scores on state reading and math tests this year fell below pre-COVID levels, and lag way behind the long-term benchmarks set by the board, according to a Chalkbeat analysis.

The Philadelphia Board of Education’s ultimate goal is to have all children meet grade-level standards in literacy and math, and all students graduate with the skills necessary for success in college or career.

“If we are going to accelerate our performance and achieve our goals faster, we need to be strategic,” Watlington said in a Monday statement announcing the leadership changes. “This requires something different and better in terms of strategy.” 

Hanna and Nunez will report to ShaVon Savage, the deputy superintendent for academics, who will stay in that post. Deputy Chief of Curriculum and Instruction Nyshawana Francis-Thompson will fill in as the interim chief of curriculum and instruction while the national search takes place. And Sonya Berry, the current deputy chief of specialized services, will be the interim chief of special education and diverse learners.

Before going to work for the state, Hanna was the chief human capital officer in New York City public schools, and then superintendent of the 5,300-student Coatesville district in Chester County. He started his career in Philadelphia, and was once principal of Kensington High School.  He was also a lead district negotiator in teachers union talks under former superintendent Arlene Ackerman. 

Watlington also announced Monday that the district has hired Mike Herbstman, the chief financial officer for the Prince George’s County school district in Maryland, to replace the outgoing Uri Monson. Herbstman, who’s also worked in public schools in Chicago and Alexandria, Va., will join the district in February. 

Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. Contact Dale at dmezzacappa@chalkbeat.org.

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