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MASD’s Wanzo: ‘It’s My Goal to Be at the Schools’

‘I’m not there to observe,’ says new superintendent, ‘I’m just there to be there’

By Adam Reinherz
The Tube City Almanac
October 17, 2022
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

CORRECTION: This article has been corrected. The wrong figure was given for the number of teachers in the district.

Inside Dr. Tia Wanzo’s office are plants, a few photos and a mounted placard with a quote once uttered by the late basketball hall of famer Kobe Bryant.

The nearby windows in Wanzo’s office allow a fair amount of natural light to enter. The sunshine illuminates a desk, conference table and plenty of places to sit, but McKeesport Area School District’s newest superintendent doesn’t love using the roomy space.

“It's really hard for me to just sit in here and be behind my desk,” Wanzo said. “I am not an office person by any way, shape, stretch or form.”

The self-described “visible leader” would rather be inside a classroom, joining others in a hallway or walking the track.

“It’s always my goal to be at the schools,” she said.

Wanzo began her educational career in 2001 as a fifth-grade teacher at Francis McClure Elementary School. After holding multiple positions in the district — including second-grade teacher, assistant principal, head principal and assistant superintendent — Wanzo became superintendent last July.

Ever since school started shortly thereafter, she’s made it a goal to frequent the district’s buildings two to three times per week, she said.

Founders’ Hall Middle School is the easiest to access — given its proximity to the administrative building — but whether visiting the high school, Francis McClure, United at Twin Rivers Elementary School, the McKeesport Area Technology Center or another site, each stop is intentional, Wanzo explained.

“I’m not there to observe. I’m just there to be there,” she said. “I've always found it's much easier to have a handle on things when you're just out and about, and you're there and you see what's going on.”

Spending time “in the trenches” affords insight into daily activities, but there’s another benefit, Wanzo said.

Frequenting the district’s learning spaces is part of creating a culture that “I’m here,” she noted. “Please don't think you have to wait until a special time. If you see me in a hall, grab me, you can email me — they have my cell phone — just whatever you need.”

MASD has 274 teachers and approximately 3,100 students. It’s a sizable group, and Wanzo said she wants to lead every one of them her way, with her demeanor.

Part of the pressure, she explained, is recognizing her own place in history. Wanzo is the first Black superintendent since MASD’s inception in 1884. She said she never set out to break that barrier but is hopeful her act will encourage young leaders.

After her induction, she told students, “Yeah, I’m the first, but I better not be the last. One of you need to be taking this thing eventually.”

For years, Wanzo has looked to the future — even when the path wasn’t particularly clear. As a doctoral student at Duquesne University, she wasn’t certain about her professional aims.

“I really didn't have a real thing that I wanted to do, but if anyone would ask me back then while I was doing it, I was like ‘I'm doing this because I want the students in McKeesport to know that they, too, can have the letters ‘DR’ In front of their name,” she said.

Wanzo credits her father, retired teacher and longtime basketball coach Gerald “Puddin” Grayson, with demonstrating how to encourage both youth and adults.

“He was here for 31 years, and I really watched how he handled himself,” she said. “He worked in this school district so he understands what it's like to be in a small town. He understands the political aspect.”

Whereas Wanzo has long relied on her father’s advice, his teachings have proven especially valuable during recent school board meetings.

Throughout the past year, conversations regarding problems with school bus service, and complaints about a contract extension for former school Superintendent Mark Holtzman Jr., often resulted in heated exchanges among board members and other attendees.  

Wanzo said she tried to remember that the focus should remain on students.

“I try to keep my cool as much as possible, which I’m typically able to do just because I have a pretty calm demeanor,” she said.

Adults are going to think differently about what’s best for the district, she said, but the goal — apart from keeping the focus on students — is to exhibit respectful behavior.

“We're not going to always think the same about a situation, but if we agree to disagree in a respectful way ... and also remember that we're doing what's best for our students in this district, then I think that's the key to getting us recentered and focused on where we need to be,” Wanzo said. 

The district faces several challenges, such as improving transportation and increasing test scores, she said, but that remembering the value of unity will prove beneficial in the years ahead.

“We’re so much more powerful when we're working together and we’re on the same page,” Wanzo said. “Together we can is what I want. And I'm going to continue to want that until I retire.”

Adam Reinherz is a Pittsburgh-based journalist. He can be reached at adam.reinherz@gmail.com. 

Originally published October 17, 2022.

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