PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- In his first sit-down interview with Action News, the School District of Philadelphia's new superintendent revealed he wants to build on the work of previous Superintendent Dr. William Hite while laying the groundwork for his own plan.
Dr. Tony Watlington Sr. came from Rowan-Salisbury School District in North Carolina, which has about 20,000 students. The School District of Philadelphia has about 114,000 students.
"The district has been treating me very well," Watlington said of his time so far in the city since being hired in April. "I love the city."
But anyone in Philadelphia can tell you the niceties only last so long
"People in Philadelphia will tell you what they think," Watlington said.
The Philadelphians Watlington has met have had a lot to say. They include parents, residents, community leaders and faith leaders among others. As a new superintendent, Watlington has chosen to start by listening.
"What I'm hearing from lots of people is that they believe the city can do better," he said. "They want to figure out how to bring us together."
So far, Watlington has hosted 65 listening tours and has 15 more to go. The information from the sessions will help create a strategic plan which will include major goals for academic growth.
"We absolutely can become the fastest-growing urban school district in the country," said Watlington.
But that growth can't happen without enough staff.
"We are at 97.4% staffed with teachers and guidance counselors," said Watlington, adding that the district will not reach 100% staffing by the first day of school.
But he says that each classroom will be staffed with a caring, qualified adult. The goal to recruit more teachers is already clear.
"Do a better job of recruiting, onboarding, developing and retaining great teachers...and Black male teachers in particular," he said.
Staffing of custodial workers and bus drivers is also an issue with those workers voting this weekend to strike.
"I'm very optimistic that we'll reach an appropriate resolution, and we'll continue to work on that area," Watlington said.
"Would that include the raises?" asked Action News reporter TaRhonda Thomas.
"We're certainly committed to all of our employees earning a living wage," Watlington said.
Watlington says he knows the concerns of striking custodians and bus drivers first-hand.
"I was a custodian and bus driver," he said. "I drove bus number 229."
But it's not just getting kids to school safely. It's about keeping them safe in an increasingly-violent city.
"I have met this summer with Commissioner Outlaw," said Watlington. "We have increased officers around certain school communities as students come to school and when they leave. We're also working with community organizations to provide additional safety volunteers and some paid in certain school communities."
It's a lot for Watlington to undertake in his five-year contract. Perhaps that's why he's already planning beyond.
"I'd like to beat Dr. Bill Hite's 10-year tenure in this district," he said. "You heard it here first!"
Watlington says he's focused on building relationships and establishing community. By mid-to-late October, he'll share the findings from all those listening events and meetings. The district will use it to start what Watlington says is an "aggressive strategic planning process."