By Ann Belser
Wayne Walters let out a laugh as he walked into the courtyard of the Pittsburgh Public Schools Administration building in Oakland.
His first reaction was to cover his mouth for being too loud.
For more than 40 years — as a student, then teacher, school administrator and assistant superintendent — Mr. Walters, who has a loud laugh and is effusively joyous, has heard a good bit of shushing.
But no one is shushing him now: he is the newly-appointed Superintendent of Schools.
He started with the district as a music teacher at King Elementary after graduating from Carnegie Mellon University in 1990. For more than 30 years, he has worked his way up through the system: He was the assistant principal of Northview Heights Elementary in 1999, principal of Frick International Studies Academy 6-8 in 2000, and the first principal of the new Pittsburgh Barack Obama Academy of International Studies in 2008.
He moved to the administration building in 2014 as an assistant superintendent and took over the top job as superintendent on an interim basis in October of last year. He was officially appointed superintendent of schools in July.
Now permanently named to the role he has either been near or held for eight years, Mr. Walters has had a wide view of the system during these past two tough years when the district had to balance education with public health during the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic as schools across the country shut down and large districts stayed closed.
During the pandemic, the system lost 10% of its enrollment.
During the 2019-2020 school year, when the schools had an enrollment of 21,275 children, the schools shut down for the last three months of the school year. By last year, as schools opened and closed depending on the number of students who tested positive, the enrollment dropped to 19,159. This year’s enrollment is not yet available, but the schools are no longer opening and closing, as all the children and staff have access to the vaccine.
He said the keys to convincing families to enroll their students in the schools are the students who are already there.
“I think our children are the best marketers of what quality education is for them and when they share their stories with their friends and share it with their families they think about the Pittsburgh Public Schools in a different light,” he said.
Looking at the schools now two years after the initial COVID-19 lockdown, Mr. Walters said there have been lessons learned: The schools must embrace the needs of both children and staff as they come through this.
He is well aware of the racial achievement gap but said the response to students not reading well is not to make learning a chore.
“Students should not have the experience that because a school is perceived as having low test scores, that our initial response is to triple dose learning and math and get rid of all... other experiences because then learning seems like it is consequential and not joyful,” he said.
When Mr. Walters talks about education, he often focuses on the word “joy.”
“Why can’t English be fun? Why can’t math be fun?” he asks. “For me, if I come with the same passion, to me I create the infection as an educator. And so, if I create that infection and that infection is joy... Think if they added the arts to math, how much joy that would bring.”
But as superintendent, he is not just an educator, he is also an administrator of educators, which he said means broadening his educational philosophy to a much larger scale. To that end, he talks about the three Es: equity, education and efficiency.
“Equity because we need to be rooted in what students need and not making sure that everyone has the same thing,” he explained. “Excellent because we need a district of excellence, not only for our students but for our city. If we want to attract people back, we have to be received as a district of excellence.
“And of course efficiency is the reality that if your revenues do not exceed your expenditures, it’s problematic.”
That last piece, efficiency, means district spending is going to have to come into line with district revenues.
One area he wants to explore is to end the diversion of a portion of the wage tax that is collected for the school district but has been paid to the city since 2005 to help steady the city government, financially, when it entered Act 47.
Now the schools are in trouble and Mr. Walters has joined the call started in February 2021 by then-school board chair Sylvia Wilson for the money collected for the schools to stay in the schools.
Pittsburgh residents are currently assessed a 3% wage tax, with 2% for the schools and 1% for city government. But when the city was in financial distress, the state legislature allowed a diversion of 0.25% of that tax, or $20 million, to the city from the schools. That diversion is still in place so the city receives 1.25% and the schools receive 1.75%. Now the schools are struggling, and Mr. Walters said he is talking to Mayor Ed Gainey, whose children attend public schools, to give the money back. Gainey, so far, has not done so.
As to possibly closing schools because enrollment has dropped, Mr. Walters said the conversation cannot start with what schools are closing.
“First and foremost, I think what helps people with understanding a decision is understanding the ‘why’ behind the decision. A lot of times in our institutions, we will admit that we have given a lot of the ‘what’ without the ‘why.’ And certainly not the ‘how,’” he said.
He said he wants to bring people to the table to talk about what needs to be done, but that also means the schools have to be open to what is said at that table.
“If we are saying we are open to other ideas and ways to think about this, then that’s what we need to do: and bring those folks to the table to think about what are the opportunities while understanding the financial challenges, buildings not to capacity, equity issues, racial achievement disparities, and all of the student experience.”
And, Mr. Walters said, as residents, parents, teachers, and students get to understand the challenges, they also need to talk about how to change the spaces where children are taught, bringing in technology and even air conditioning because with climate change, both the beginning and the end of the school year are becoming unbearable for children and staff.
“I really think that what allows people to come on board with you is that ‘why’ to inform the ‘what.’”
One of the biggest strengths of the Pittsburgh Public Schools is Pittsburgh itself.
“I think one of the great things about Pittsburgh that I’ve received is that everybody wants to help,” he said, adding that he knows the community will stand for improving the school district.
“We have a community that has embraced Pittsburgh Public Schools and wants it to get better.”
Ann Belser is the publisher of East End Print, a community newspaper serving Pittsburgh’s East End. This article is reprinted in partnership with the Pittsburgh Community Newspaper Network. It has been edited lightly for length and clarity.