Cheltenham School District Hires Natalie Thomas of St. Louis as Its Next Superintendent

Cheltenham School District Superintendent designee Natalie Thomas

The Cheltenham Township School District announced the appointment of Natalie Thomas, Ph.D. as Superintendent of Schools tonight at a special meeting of the board. Thomas, who is from St. Louis with a long career in educational leadership in that part of the country, will begin her new position on July 1. She takes over for outgoing Superintendent Darlene Davis, who announced her resignation last November and will be taking the job of principal/CEO of Widener University’s Partnership Charter School in Chester.

Thomas most recently served as the superintendent of the Farmington R-7 School District and co-superintendent of the Riverview Gardens School District in St. Louis, MO. Her hiring is the culmination of a national search and rigorous interview process that involved a series of Q&A sessions with stakeholder groups, including the Cheltenham Educators Association (teachers union), the Business Employees Council (noneducational staff union), central administrators, parent group representatives and other community members, according to the district.
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Board President Tina Viletto said of Thomas at the meeting, “She’s very energized and excited to lead us. Many districts were trying to recruit her.” Viletto interacts regularly with districts across the state in her role as a staffer for the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit. “We received kudos from regular recruiters for schools” who wanted her, she said. Viletto, who has been through three superintendent searches since she joined the board in 2005, said Thomas’ personality “will provide a calming but very firm voice in this district.” The board president thanked everyone involved in the almost seven month process for their patience, including board secretary Eileen Wolf, who handled logistics for a constant stream of meetings. Thomas sent her apologies for not being able to be there to personally accept the appointment, said Viletto.

Other board members also were enthusiastic about the Thomas appointment. “She rose to the top very quickly. I’m very excited about this,” said Mary Russell. David Rackow said he, too, was “excited about her potential.” Napoleon Nelson noted he was “thrilled to make the vote” and looked forward to other “big picture” items on the board’s agenda in the years ahead that would move the district decisively forward. However, the vote was not unanimous, with Marc Lieberson the only member opposed. “My view is that her general perspective and perhaps operating experience is not what Cheltenham needs. I decided to vote against based on what I heard and saw,” he said. Although Lieberson was a bit vague about his concerns, he apparently would have preferred someone closer to the pulse of educational policy and politics in PA. Board member Julie Haywood, who was out of town for the meeting, expressed full support for Thomas in a written message.

Thomas was one of 60-plus applicants for the job from across the U.S. She has a four-year contract with a starting salary of $180,000 per year with all raises tied to performance-based criteria.

Her well-rounded work history in public policy administration, social work and labor relations was another factor in her favor. She began her career as a special education teacher in St. Louis County and served for more than two decades in various leadership roles including assistant superintendent for student support services and secondary education, special projects director, countywide program education program evaluator, school psychologist and principal. Thomas led reform efforts in alternative education services, specialized services for students with social, emotional and behavioral challenges and child-specific intervention services designed to help every child succeed. In the classroom Thomas established specialized programs that emphasized skill development, critical thinking and application opportunities for high school students in both comprehensive high schools and vocational/technical settings, according to an advance press release from the district..

Her formal education includes a doctorate in Public Policy with an emphasis on Education Systems from the University of Missouri, a masters degree in Social Work and Education from Washington University and a Bachelors of Social Work from St. Louis University. She holds a certificate in Labor Relations from Cornell University in addition to being a certified teacher, social worker, counselor, school psychologist, special education teacher, elementary and secondary principal and special education director. She currently teaches graduate courses on Linguistic Diversity and Assessment, Resiliency in the Classroom, Global Ethics and Comparative Education Systems.

As an advocate for public education, Thomas has focused on building partnerships with municipalities and community agencies that allow students, teachers and parents to collaborate effectively in environments as diverse as the St. Louis Magic House and the St. Louis Art Museum. She served as a mediator for parents and school districts when disputes arose over programming for students with exceptional needs, and she pressed for services that extend learning through gifted education, community internships, service projects and college campus experiences for students. In addition, Thomas wrote and directed a Fulbright Hayes Group Project that afforded 16 teachers from various school districts the opportunity to learn and work in Senegal, West Africa.

She will be moving to the Philadelphia area and is delighted to be living closer to her sister and niece who reside in New York. Thomas has rescued Labrador Retrievers and looks forward to joining groups that bring dogs into supportive, loving service for those in need.