Meet the New Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent, Dr. Wayne Walters

“Hello, Abigail. How was your day today?”, inquired Dr. Walters as soon as we began our interview.

When I decided to reach out to the superintendent to set up an interview for this article, I was not sure what to expect. Within just a few hours, Dr. Walters got back to me, agreeing to an interview. He even expressed that he was elated to do so. As I prepared, I sent several emails back and forth trying to find a time to meet. With every email I sent explaining my after-school schedule, he replied almost immediately, willing to work around my other obligations. When we found a time that worked for both of us, I sat down to call him. He did not attempt to get the interview over with. Rather, he wanted to focus on me and my day at school. He was thorough, patient, and clear.

I began by asking him to explain the process of becoming the new interim superintendent for the Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS). He explained that there were five assistant superintendents who had the credentials to be the new superintendent, and the board president asked if they were interested in the position. They each had to apply and go through an interview process. Then, the board of directors made the selection.

We quickly got into more difficult issues like the current state of PPS. In the face of a raging pandemic, PPS has, arguably, lost the faith of many parents. This is a challenging time so I asked why he chose to take the position. Walters responded by simply saying, “I think the general answer for that is that I care. I care deeply for the students in our district, I care deeply for the staff. I also care about Pittsburgh Public Schools.”

This led me to explore where this sense of caring and commitment came from. It turns out that Wayne Walters lived in both the U.S Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands and then came to Pittsburgh at the age of sixteen to attend Carnegie Mellon University. His parents dropped him off knowing that they would not see him until the next summer, as they did not have the financial resources to visit him or have him come home throughout the year. He explained that despite the difficulties of being on his own in college at such a young age, he had no other option but to work hard, “and accept and embrace his reality.” After graduating college, he knew that he wanted to work in an urban school district, “I always wanted to be in an urban space because that was where I felt at home, that was where I felt I could create impact, and that was what I was passionate about.”

Dr. Walters has over thirty years of experience in PPS. Throughout those years he has earned tenure in the district and gained a great deal of experience working with students and adults. “I know the district, but the district knows me,” he explained. 

He began his career in the district at Martin Luther King Elementary School. Walters has been a teacher, middle school principal, and high school principal. His work was and still is consistently student-centered. Helping students achieve their goals and reach their highest potential is his priority. 

The teachers I talked to thoroughly agreed. Joseph Ehman, International Baccalaureate (IB) coordinator at Pittsburgh Obama Academy, worked with Walters for many years. He says, “Dr. Walters is about students first and foremost. He believes in the potential greatness of every student he comes in contact with. He worked tirelessly to do what was best for his students and their school. He believes in students, he understands the unique challenges that many students in our district face and knows that those challenges may add hurdles for those students, but he truly believes in their potential.” 

Peter Vitti agrees. Vitti is a social studies teacher at Pittsburgh Obama Academy who worked under Dr. Walters for several years. “What I respect most about Dr. Walters is his commitment to children and to the profession. He was ever present at school functions to show his support (athletic events, clubs, plays, etc.). He made every student feel special. He knew every one of his students and teachers by name.” 

Throughout Walters’ many years of experience within the district, I wondered what he believed are PPS’ strengths and weaknesses. Of this district’s strengths, Walters says, “We have a dedicated staff that really have shown over and over again that they will go the extra mile.” He also acknowledges the weakness that persists with the district. Walters says, “I think the area of growth for our district is the relationship building and the trust we have to establish because we have a public trust issue. But it’s not only external trust it’s internal, so we have to create those spaces where we build that back…” He plans to work on those issues during his time as superintendent.

Although Walters has high hopes for PPS, he knows the district must learn from the issues the pandemic exacerbates and presents. Walters says, “Some of the takeaways I would say is that the pandemic has created what I call necessary distractions that we have to address.” He goes on to name some issues such as the importance of keeping kids in school, and the need for every kid to have access to technology. 

One of the most difficult issues to talk about in any district is discipline. Many philosophies exist on how to best discipline within an urban and diverse school district. Walters was clear and to the point. “I would rather school be a place where you can get those second chances where it doesn’t damage you, but that the consequences teach you before you become an adult and the system defines you. I know some students may not feel that, and even some adults in our space, but I do believe that school should be a place where you learn those lessons and where you get consequences that are not life changing before society deems you a consequence that is.”

Walters has many goals for the district, but he explained that communication is vital to achieve these goals: “…really cultivating relationships and trust, through systems of collaboration and clear communication. Communication is critical because if the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing the body is probably not well-coordinated.” He wants to advance organizational cohesion in the district, and cultivate communication and trust: “…with people understanding the why, we will have people accepting the what.” He says, “trust is not granted, it’s earned.” With honesty and dedication, Walters believes he can build back a stronger community. 

When asked about his first priority as superintendent, Walters responds, “…I think I have several priorities because the nature of education, it is not one-dimensional it is multi-faceted, so I am not allowed or given the privilege of working on just one thing at a time.” He goes on to state that his priorities include (but are not limited to) solving the technical issues, transportation, and increased efficiency in terms of COVID-19 mitigation. 

These are all tall tasks, but Dr. James McCoy, the principal at Taylor Allderdice High School says, “He is the ideal fit and he has an abundance of experience at all levels of leadership within the district.” 

Moreover, Walters believes in students’ ability to achieve excellence. “Once you are well disciplined and work hard you can achieve anything.” Among other goals, he wants to establish safety and order, doing your best, showing up, making school a positive and joyful environment, making collaboration and partnership a priority, valuing diversity, and creating an opportunity to learn from each other and love each other.

We ended the interview, appropriately with the theme that I believe will be Walters’ legacy: students. “What drives me is the students. I know what education did for me and my humble beginnings and I know the impact of those teachers that really created experiences that changed my life. I am obligated to give back to the generation that comes after me, obligated to those who may not have what I have now, an obligation to tell my story in a way that I hope inspires others to believe that they can be whatever they want to be through the power of education.” 

Hearing Walters’ unwavering commitment and love for the students, staff, and community of PPS reassured me time and time again that our district is in good hands. He wants to make a change in the system to make a difference in students’ lives. 

Dr. Wayne Walters gives me much hope for the future of Pittsburgh Public Schools.