Transparency watch: Public gets time to see Philadelphia schools chief’s strategic plan after all

A man in a brown suit and a maroon tie stands in front of a pale blue background and smiles.
Superintendent Tony Watlington released a summary of his five-year strategic plan on Wednesday. Watlington will present the plan for review at the Board of Education meeting May 25, and the board will vote on the plan June 1. (Johann Calhoun / Chalkbeat)

This story has been updated to include additional information about curriculum contracts the Philadelphia Board of Education is due to vote on May 25.

Less than 24 hours before the Philadelphia Board of Education was due to vote on Superintendent Tony Watlington’s as-yet-unseen strategic plan, the board postponed the vote until June and released an executive summary of the plan to the public.

The executive summary says the plan will include a pilot program to “incentivize” teachers to work in “hard to staff schools,” the relaunch of “Parent University” — a program to give parents and caregivers courses in academics, financial literacy and other areas — and a $70 million update for the district’s core curriculums in math, reading, and science, among other proposals. 

The board was previously scheduled to vote on the plan at Thursday’s board meeting. But two days after Chalkbeat reported that the public had yet to see the plan, Watlington said he will now present the proposal for review Thursday, and the board will vote on it June 1. If the board approves the plan, it will begin July 1. 

Pressure has been building on Watlington to unveil the plan to the public before the board’s vote on it. The plan will be the culmination of Watlington’s work in his first year in office, and could guide the district through pandemic recovery, a growing asbestos crisis, and a gun violence epidemic that’s killed more than 20 students this academic year so far.

“We’re going to ask the Board to take some time to kick the tires, look under the hood, and ask our community to do the same thing,” Watlington said of the plan in an interview Wednesday. “This is going to be our North Star for the next five years and beyond, and I want to make sure we’re very thoughtful about how we begin this work.”

The summary says Watlington’s strategic plan is intended to be a “living document that can be updated by the Administration as needed based on progress monitoring, emerging trends, new internal evidence, or external research.”

The executive summary is light on specific, prescriptive policies. Many of the ideas involve launching new advisory groups, audits, updating websites, and reviewing the current policies. 

And there’s no price tag for the plan yet. 

“In the process of costing out this plan, we know that current funding is inadequate,” he said. 

He highlighted a February ruling from Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer that the wide gaps in spending between wealthy and poor districts in the state makes Pennsylvania’s current school funding system unconstitutional

However, Jubelirer did not prescribe a specific remedy, and securing more state aid is likely to take time. Republican legislative leaders haven’t said whether they will appeal.

“I think it’s easy in Philadelphia to get immune to what historic underfunding really means,” Watlington said. 

Aside from comments about his five-year plan, Watlington also said he was confident about his future even though the next mayor can appoint an entirely new school board, which could in turn hire a different superintendent. 

Cherelle Parker, the Democratic nominee for mayor who’s a heavy favorite to win November’s election, has not indicated her intentions regarding school board appointments. 

Although she doesn’t exercise direct control over the district, she’s promised that her plan for education will “transform how we think about public schooling.” 

Two leaders’ dovetailing plans for year-round schedule

The summary says the plan includes five priority areas: safety and well-being, family and community partnerships, accelerating academic achievement, recruiting and retaining “diverse and highly effective educators,” and “high-quality, cost-effective operations.”

One of the most high-profile proposals in Watlington’s plan — one likely to have a substantial cost — is a pilot for year-round school. Parker’s most far-reaching education proposal during the campaign called for the same. 

Watlington said he wants to pilot “a year-round and extended day school calendar” in up to 10 schools. Beyond that, he had few details. 

It’s too early to say whether year-round schooling means extending the academic school year or the school day, or both, Watlington said.

“I want to slow down and roll out the strategy, cost out what it would cost us, and then we want to take the time to build support and do an information campaign with various school communities,” Watlington said. “I don’t want to just assign schools to do this.”

Parker’s plan was also short on specifics. On the campaign trail, she promised to “create full-day, full-year education for all students in Philadelphia.” She also wants schools to be open from 7:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. for “before and after-school enrichment,” but has not elaborated on those statements.

Any change in school schedules “is something that would have to be negotiated,” Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan said in an interview.

Asked whether year-round schooling was a major component of his plan before Parker made it a keystone of her platform, Watlington demurred.

“I think it’s coincidental, but inherently good” that both he and Parker are talking about the idea, Watlington said. “What we do together is more important than ‘who came up with the idea?’” 

But Jeron Williams II, a Central High School student who sits on one of the committees that helped develop the plan, said “never once did we discuss year-round schooling.” Jordan, who also participated in the process, said the same thing. 

Incentives for teachers will require union negotiations

Another component of the plan would create a pilot to give some teachers and principals “retention incentives” for teaching in schools where staffing has proven difficult.

But the executive summary does not provide further details, such as whether those incentives would take the form of bonus pay or something else.

Such incentives would also have to be negotiated with the teachers’ union. Jordan said that the district used to have a program that offered salary boosts to teachers who took particularly difficult assignments, but that only covered about 25 teachers at its peak, and that teachers generally didn’t like it.

The summary doesn’t provide details about Watlington’s proposed $70 million changes to curriculum. However, the agenda for the board’s May 25 meeting includes votes on contracts with various vendors for new curriculum in math and language arts that add up to $50 million; another $20 million contract for science materials was originally included on the agenda but withdrawn as of late Wednesday. Those contracts are related to Watlington’s plan, a board spokesperson said.

Watlington also highlighted a proposal to pilot “learn to swim” programs in “different parts of the city,” but did not provide further details. Students and members of the public have stressed that helping young people — especially Black and brown children from low-income backgrounds — learn to swim and giving them access to pools provides various benefits.

“The fact that we can’t do this all over the city does not mean that we should not start somewhere,” Watlington said of the swimming pilot, “I’m hopeful that we can grow that over time.” 

In general, Watlington said he’s optimistic that he will have the buy-in necessary for his strategic plan to get the board’s approval and get his proposals done.

“I think the future is bright for Philadelphia and the school district of Philadelphia,” Watlington said. “I’m excited to be here and we’re gonna do some great things. I really believe our best days are ahead of us.”

Damaged asbestos will close school into next year

New details about Watlington’s plan came on the heels of news Wednesday that Frankford High School would remain closed for the rest of the school year and into next year because asbestos remediation at the century-old school building was more extensive than originally thought.

In addition, the district has been “unable to quickly identify a nearby swing space that could be prepared in time for this school year to accommodate our students and staff, as well as meet all the programmatic needs,” Oz Hill, the district’s deputy chief operating officer, said in a letter to the school community. All but Frankford’s special education students are learning virtually.

As with his strategic plan, Watlington placed the blame for such asbestos-related school closures on historic underfunding for the district, as well as prior leaders’ failure to “care for our facilities like we should have.” 

The summary of Watlington’s strategic plan does call for a “facilities master plan project team.” Last November, the district paused its work on a blueprint for infrastructure upgrades; Watlington said at the time that he wanted to ensure that such a blueprint matched his strategic plan. 

“We’re going to be in this asbestos space over the long term,” Watlington said. “Unfortunately, because of historical underfunding we don’t have shovel-ready swing spaces” that school community members can support or commute to.

District officials told reporters at a briefing Tuesday they were making progress in their building inspection process

Carly Sitrin is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Philadelphia. Contact Carly at csitrin@chalkbeat.org.

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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