Philadelphia district seeking another consultant to help with restructuring

A man in a dark suit and white shirt leans to his right while a person holds a phone near his face in front of a plant a blue wall.
Philadelphia schools superintendent Tony Watlington during a recent press interview. (Dale Mezzacappa/Chalkbeat)

Less than six months after hiring an outside firm for $450,000 to advise him on ways to improve the school district, Superintendent Tony Watlington is seeking to find another consultant to position Philadelphia “to be the fastest improving urban school district in the country,” according to a request for proposal obtained by Chalkbeat.

The document says the district seeks a consultant to review Philadelphia’s organizational structure to see how it compares to “the 25 largest urban school districts and the five urban school district[s] that are improving the fastest on The Nation’s Report Card.” 

That refers to the biennial National Assessment of Educational Progress. Results released in October showed Philadelphia performing near the bottom among large urban school districts in 2022 in fourth grade math, eighth grade math, fourth grade reading, and eighth grade reading. 

The district issued the request Dec. 6 and set a Jan. 17 deadline. The consultant would begin in April and work through April 2024.

Last April, Watlington and the board of education came under scrutiny for hiring the consulting firm Joseph and Associates to help with the leadership transition and aid in developing a five-year strategic plan. Joseph started work in June and will work through the end of this school year. The strategic plan is due next spring.

Watlington is conducting what he called a comprehensive, three-phase transition with committees charged with developing a five-year strategic plan by next spring. His transition team has made 91 recommendations for improving the district. 

Some critics of the Board of Education and district policies wondered why yet another consultant is necessary.

“Why do we need more consultants and management companies and these out-of-town companies when we have a staff,” asked Lisa Haver of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, who regularly questions board and district policies.

But Michael Casserly, who retired after heading the Council of the Great City Schools for nearly three decades, said hiring consultants is common practice. 

“My experience is that superintendents hire a variety of consulting firms for all kinds of things,” he said. They do it because they have a lean central office or are looking for an “outside more independent or objective review” in an effort to build public trust, or both, he said in an interview. “It’s really not that unusual.” 

Watlington, who became Philadelphia’s school superintendent in June, has never run a district this large. He came from the Rowan-Salisbury school district in North Carolina, which had an enrollment of 18,000, a fraction of Philadelphia’s 119,000 students in district schools and 70,000 in charter schools. Before that he rose from custodian to history teacher to chief of schools in the 72,000-student Guilford County school system in Greensboro, North Carolina. 

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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