Wayne Walters
PPS Superintendent Wayne Walters. Photo 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 a teacher, school administrator and an assistant superintendent — Walters, who has a loud laugh and is effusively joyous, has been subject to a good bit of shushing.

But no one is shushing the superintendent of schools now.

Walters started with PPS 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 School 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. Walters was officially appointed superintendent of schools in July.

Wayne Walters
Wayne Walters at a celebration in his honor at Obama Academy. Photo by Ann Belser.

Walters has had a wide view of the system during these last two challenging years when the district had to balance education with public health during the first years of the Covid pandemic as schools shut down.

Over the course of 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, enrollment dropped to 19,159. This year’s enrollment is not yet available, but the schools are no longer opening and closing, as all of the children and staff have access to the vaccine.

Walters says 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 says.

Walters is well aware of the racial achievement gap, but says the response to students not reading well is not a reason 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 of those other experiences because then learning seems like it is consequential and not joyful,” he says.

When Walters talks about education, he uses the word “joy” often.

“Why can’t English be fun? Why can’t math be fun?” he asks. “Think if they added the arts to math, how much joy that would bring.”

Wayne Walters greets students at Pittsburgh King PreK-8. Photo by Mary Niederberger.

But as superintendent, Walters is not just an educator, he is also an administrator of educators, which he says means broadening his educational philosophy to a much larger scale. To that end, he talks about the three Es: equity, excellence and efficiency.

Efficiency means district spending is going to have to come into line with revenues.

Pittsburgh residents are assessed a 3% wage tax, with 2% for the schools and 1% for the city government. But when the city was in financial distress in 2005, 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 that the city receives 1.25% and the schools receive 1.75%.

Now the schools are struggling and Walters says he is talking to Mayor Ed Gainey, whose children attend the public schools, to give the money back. Gainey, so far, has not done so.

As to possibly closing schools because enrollment has dropped, Walters says 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.”

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.”

One of the 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 says. “We have a community that has embraced Pittsburgh Public Schools and wants it to get better.”

Ann Belser is the owner of Print, a newspaper covering Pittsburgh's East End communities. After receiving a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she moved to Squirrel Hill and was a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 20 years where she covered local communities, county government, courts and business.