How Not To Pick a Schools Superintendent
Philadelphia's School Board is forcing families into another generation of illiteracy, innumeracy, and incarceration
G.S. Potter, PhD | Senior Editor
The Philadelphia School Board’s search for a superintendent continues down the path of shortchanging Black students and ignoring community demands.
From the beginning of the search for a new school superintendent, Philadelphia community members have been concerned that their needs and demands would be ignored, the selection process would lack the transparency necessary to elect a candidate that represents the community, and the results would favor the political desires of the Board rather than the needs of the students and families.
And so far, all of these fears have been validated.
The Board recently released the names of the top three finalists for the position of superintendent. Despite community demands, not one of them was from Philadelphia and not one of them was a woman. According to Chalkbeat …
The board said it whittled down a pool of 400 prospects to 35 people who they vetted more deeply, and then narrowed the list to 11 preliminary finalists. Of that group of 11, six were women and three ‘had experience in the Philadelphia education ecosystem …
So, three men with no experience in the Philadelphia school system became the finalists.
There are questions surrounding the recruitment and vetting processes. A lack of transparency should have Philadelphia residents concerned. The Philadelphia Alliance for Public Schools, for example, has suggested the finalists be rejected and the search to be expanded. The Philadelphia Board of Education has dismissed this request, however, and will proceed with the selection process.
While residents are rightfully concerned that the selection process is not considering their demands, these concerns do not necessarily mean that the finalists are underqualified for the position. An analysis of their resumes and results do that, already.
The Philadelphia schools system is in crisis. Only 17 percent of fourth graders can read at proficiency. Math proficiency throughout the public school system is only 23 percent, almost half the average of the state of Pennsylvania. Detroit is the only city with a lower literacy rate. Record gun violence is plaguing the city and with 96 percent of the victims being Black boys, children are terrified to go to school. And more than half of Philadelphia’s public school students live in poverty.
The Philadelphia school system needs someone who has experience leading a large school district and using that leadership to dramatically increase the reading and math scores of the most vulnerable students. It needs a Superintendent who knows how to secure funding and political support to provide low-income black students with the resources they need to succeed, even if they live in impoverished communities and households. They also need someone who can boldly create the trauma-centered support systems Philadelphia students need to achieve while living on streets more deadly than many global war zones.
What they got was a choice between three people with no track records of success in struggling communities. None of candidates possessed a bold agenda to help students confront the obstacles of poverty and violence.
John Davis, for example, is a White man who works for the Baltimore School District. He has been the Chief of Schools in Baltimore since 2017, but he has not held a position as Superintendent there. The math proficiency rate for Black elementary students in the Baltimore City School District is 13.7 percent and English proficiency is 15 percent. The proficient rates for students in poverty is even lower, and for students with disabilities, it is in the single digits. There is nothing in the data that suggest Davis could effectively support low-income Black students living in trauma.
Krish Mohip has also struggled to bring change to struggling communities. While he is currently the deputy education officer for the Illinois State Board of Education, he did try his hand as a superintendent for the Youngstown, Ohio school district. During his tenure, 0 percent of the indicators of proficiency for the district were met. And upon his contentious early departure from the district, fourth grade reading and math proficiency rates were 12.9 percent and 9.6 percent respectively. When Mohip had the opportunity to make change in a challenging school district, he not only failed, he quit early.
And finally, the frontrunner, Tony Watlington, superintendent of the Rowan-Salisbury school system in North Carolina. While he has garnered support from Councilmember Helen Gym and Jerry Jordan, president, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, his resume is also lackluster. The Rowan-Salisbury school district has only 35 schools as compared to Philadelphia’s 217. Even so, 73 percent of the schools in his district are rated as below average. Reading and math scores, while still higher than scores in Philadelphia, have steadily declined since 2010. And Black students make up only 19 percent of the school population while White students remained a dominant majority at 58 percent.
Philadelphia has been languishing under the leadership of Superintendent Hite. The city finally has the opportunity to bring in an educational change agent. It could be hiring a leader with the experience and knowledge necessary to change the lives of every single child in the school system. Instead of reaching for this opportunity for change, the Philadelphia School Board is steering the district into another wall of ineptitude and forcing families into another generation of illiteracy, innumeracy, and incarceration. Philadelphia deserves better. The Philadelphia School Board must be held accountable for refusing it.