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Pittsburgh superintendent Wayne Walters has 5 big goals for the district

Superintendent Wayne Walters speaks with students during the first day back to school after winter break.
Jason Cohn
Pittsburgh Public Schools
Superintendent Wayne Walters speaks with students during the first day back to school after winter break.

Five months into his first year as superintendent, Wayne Walters is working to reduce the achievement gap between Black and white students and build trust with families.

The longtime district educator and administrator says he is working to correct public misconceptions about the district. He wants to improve district communications to build relationships and cultivate culture.

“We can do this with communication and strong partnerships that create something that’s a lot more robust, innovative, empowering and truly joyful for our students,” he said in a recent interview with WESA.

The district’s enrollment has declined by nearly 20 percent in seven years, with almost half of the decline coming during the pandemic. The district now serves 18,660 K-12 students, down from 22,895 in 2016.

Walters led the district for the 2021-22 school year in an interim capacity after former Superintendent Anthony Hamlet abruptly left the position after a state investigation revealed he violated the state’s ethics law.

Hamlet moved Walters to the central office administration in 2014 to lead professional development efforts. Walters had most recently led Obama Academy, a 6-12 international baccalaureate magnet school.

Walters said as he continues to lead the district through challenges, he’s thankful for dedicated staff members who continue to teach.

“I desperately want to honor and value and respect our staff for the work they do daily,” he said.

Walters’ administration is now constructing a new strategic plan based on five goals the school board recently approved.

The goals include investing in culturally responsive teacher training, constructing safety and wellness protocols, expanding stakeholder communication, designing effective organizational systems, and strategically and equitably allocating money.

Academic achievement

Walters doesn’t believe that students lost learning during the pandemic when they either learned remotely or were in school part-time.

“I think there was a lot of learning that took place during the pandemic, and a lot of it was rooted in just survival and learning things in different ways and becoming familiar with technology perhaps in ways they haven’t done before,” he said. “But I think there were some areas of focus that did not show up in our assessments that perhaps we need to revisit and think about the ways that we do them differently.”

Though there have been improvements with some subgroups, the district's proficient standardized test scores dropped in math, science and reading compared to pre-pandemic scores.

Walters said the district is challenged to make significant improvements in outcomes, but teachers need tools to navigate the new ways students learn.

“We really need to think about how we invest in culturally responsive, evidence-based professional learning for our staff,” he said. “If we can use those tools, the resources, our collaborative learning communities, the ways that we look at teacher practice and how we provide feedback that’s growth-oriented, then we can support and hone teacher skills for this new reality of things that we’ve learned.”

Aging infrastructure

Walters said the heaviest lift would be strategically allocating resources to schools to ensure equity, excellence and efficiency — what he calls the “three Es."

“Every student who lives in our district, regardless of race, ZIP code, gender, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, economic designation, and the list goes on, they’re entitled to a high-quality and robust educational experience,” he said.

Some of the district’s highest-performing schools are magnet schools that require students to be admitted through a lottery system.

“We know that we have opportunities where we can make all of our schools excellent spaces to learn and not have that perception that if you didn’t get into a particular school that your educational experience will not be high quality,” he said.

The average age of a Pittsburgh Public School building is 89 years, what the district’s chief of operations has called “staggering.” Walters said he had told the board that he wanted to have a conversation about “design principles” and what qualities every district should have. He said he isn’t sure if the district needs to close or consolidate schools, but he wants the conversation to be about what students and educators need from a space and how to ensure every building is equipped.

“Our leadership team (has) been in several retreats where we’ve worked on some design principles to support these ideas, and they don’t necessarily speak to closing a school or anything like that, but they’re conversations that we need to have to inform strategic allocation and optimization of resources,” he said.

Above all, Walters said he wants all of his decisions to be student-centered. He meets regularly with a group of students on his advisory council.

“I’m unapologetically student first, and I’m here for them,” he said. “I want their families and communities to know that in the short term, based on my actions and the normalcy of what I do and when I communicate, that we want to build trust with you, and we want you to know that Pittsburgh Public Schools is the option for your child.”