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Rowan-Salisbury Superintendent answers 5 questions from WBTV as he prepares to take over nation’s 8th largest school district

Dr. Tony B. Watlington, Sr., to become superintendent of School District of Philadelphia
Dr. Tony B. Watlington, Sr., sat down for one last interview with WBTV on Tuesday.
Dr. Tony B. Watlington, Sr., sat down for one last interview with WBTV on Tuesday.(David Whisenant-WBTV)
Published: Apr. 12, 2022 at 1:43 PM EDT
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ROWAN COUNTY, N.C. (WBTV) - At the end of this week the superintendent of Rowan-Salisbury Schools will be leaving his job to take over the 8th largest school district in the country.

Dr. Tony B. Watlington, Sr., will become superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia in June. Today he spoke with WBTV talk about his future, and his time leading Rowan-Salisbury Schools. Dr. Watlington began working in Rowan-Salisbury just over a year ago, but he says the area and the school district made an impression on him that will serve him in Philadelphia.

WBTV: Why are you leaving?

Watlington: “When the Board hired me in December of 2020, it was my full intention to complete the full length of my contract through June of 2024. This has been a great community to live and work in and I’ve been so happy to be here. Earlier this year, the School District of Philadelphia reached out, at least some recruiters reached out and asked me to consider having a conversation. I was not unhappy with Rowan-Salisbury Schools at all, however, when one of the ten largest school districts in the country knocks on your door and says ‘we’d like to have a conversation with you because of some of the work that you’re doing, some of the work that’s happening in Rowan-Salisbury Schools as North Carolina’s first Renewal school district,’ it made me pique up and have some interest and I was also very intrigued because it’s the city where our Declaration of Independence and Constitution were signed, and at one time the nation’s capital was housed in Philadelphia. I do think the School District of Philadelphia can be a national model for urban school districts across the country.”

WBTV: What do you see as your biggest opportunity in Philadelphia?

Watlington: “I think the School District of Philadelphia has some of the same challenges that we have in Rowan-Salisbury Schools and that we have across the country in terms of increasing student achievement, making sure that schools are safe places, addressing crime in communities, and how we address aging buildings. The scale is just much larger in the School District of Philadelphia, but I’m looking forward to partnering with various communities in the metropolitan Philadelphia area and I’m sure we’re going to do some great work together.”

WBTV: What is your biggest takeaway from Rowan-Salisbury Schools?

Watlington: “I will never forget the spirit of innovation in Rowan-Salisbury Schools. It means a lot to me to have worked in North Carolina’s first and only Renewal school district, and here’s the key; we’re not just doing innovation for the sake of innovation. At the end of the day, I’m so excited and so proud of the staff and community because we work together to increase our state ranking on literacy. We’ve made some considerable improvements there, and I’m really proud with the number of schools that met or exceeded growth increased significantly in the past year and it just makes the case that our young people are bright, they’re smart, all of them, and we just have to find ways to tap their innate giftedness because all of our young people are gifted and we’ve got to find out how to tap into that. When I think about all the schools that exceeded growth this past year, to include Knox Middle, North Rowan Middle, Koontz Elementary, Salisbury High, the list goes on and on, I’m just so proud to have had a small part in that work, and I can’t thank our principals, our teachers, our central office staff and all of our professionals in our community at large for all of their partnership work to make those gains happen.”

WBTV: What do you see in the future for Rowan-Salisbury Schools?

Watlington: “I believe that the best days for Rowan-Salisbury Schools are yet to come.”

WBTV: Any message you’d like to leave with the community?

Watlington: “As I leave, I want to encourage all of the citizens of Rowan County to be laser focused on supporting public education. Public education built the middle class in this country, public education helped this country to develop the world’s largest economy, and to become the world’s largest superpower, but it is at risk. If we don’t support our public schools with our time, our treasure, and all of our talents, public schools in this democracy won’t be the same 50 years from now, and so this is about preserving American democracy and I sure hope and want to encourage all of our citizens in Rowan County to join us in that work.”

Also this week, the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education appointed Dr. Jason Gardner as interim superintendent. He will take the helm of RSS on April 16.

According to a press release, Gardner has been a valuable member of RSS’s leadership team since 2016.

He currently serves as the district’s Chief Academic Officer. Previously, he was the Executive Director of Elementary Education. Prior to his time at RSS, Gardner worked as a principal and assistant principal in the Mooresville Graded School District and a teacher and assistant principal for Iredell-Statesville Schools. He’s also an adjunct professor at Catawba College and Wingate University.

“On behalf of our Board, we thank Dr. Watlington for his service and commitment to the children and employees of our school system. We appreciate his thinking about the system and stepping down prior to taking his position in Philadelphia so we can move forward with selecting our next leader,” said Board Chairman Dean Hunter.

Hunter added that the Board will move as quickly as possible in their search to ensure the continuation of RSS’s vision and mission, which is focused on serving every child in our school system.

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