Six months in, new schools head Antwan Wilson pushing his “roadmap” for a challenged district
on December 15, 2014
Each day when he goes to work, Antwan Wilson puts on a suit and tie, a button with the Oakland tree on it, and his wire-rimmed glasses. He wears a flat cap over his shaved head if he’s going to be outdoors. Then he puts on a black and silver bracelet that reads: “Success For All. No Excuses.”
Wilson is the city of Oakland’s superintendent of public schools. He’s been on the job since June 1, coming to Oakland most recently from Colorado and less recently from Kansas and Nebraska. During an introductory press conference on his first day of work, Wilson said he was attracted to Oakland “because of the commitment that exists here, because of the history that exists here, because of the activism that exists here, because of the diversity within the community.” He was drawn to Oakland, too, he said, because of what it would mean to this country if Oakland can create quality schools for all of the city’s young people, regardless of their background.
But Wilson and the Oakland Unified School District have work to do in order to realize the words on his bracelet and the vision he’s shared. The commitment and activism of the community can lead to strong opinions and arguing—Wilson says Oakland can have high quality schools, but will need to avoid bickering to keep the district on track. And Oakland is already facing major challenges: The district graduates only 67 percent of its high school students, has a significant achievement gap between African-American and Latino students and their white and Asian peers, has suffered from declining enrollment—and thus declining state funding—and is in gridlock with the teacher’s union about their current contract.
“Significant growth is needed in this city,” Wilson said at a recent morning meeting with business leaders. “We still have double-digit dropout rates. Our graduation rate is not where we need it.” Students attend schools with poor statewide rankings, and, he said, “We lose $5.5 million a year due to chronic absenteeism. We know we need to get better.”
Six months into his tenure here, Wilson has laid out a plan to improve the school district. It’s called the “Pathway to Excellence,” and Wilson deems it “the roadmap for the next five years” of the district’s work. In it, he outlines three priorities: He wants to make the district a better employer and one that retains more teachers. He wants to streamline its administrative offices and give more authority to individual school sites. And he wants to improve the school and student experience, focusing on graduation rates and better preparing students for college and careers.
On a recent rainy Wednesday, as attendees covered their heads and ran from the parking lot to the main entrance of Madison Park Academy, a pre-kindergarten through 10th grade school in East Oakland, Wilson prepared to release the plan that will guide the lives of the thousands of students, teachers, and administrators. His audience represented a diverse constituency to which he is accountable: the school board; Oakland’s mayor-elect Libby Schaaf; news media; teachers; and his main charges, the students.
“Some people say it’s too hard,” Wilson said, towering over the wooden podium before him and speaking clearly, his voice characterized by a slight Southern accent. “They want to give us reasons as to why every student can’t be successful. Normally those reasons amount to those neighborhoods that students live in, the zip codes, the family backgrounds.” Resting his hands on the edges of the stand, Wilson continued, “I can assure you that you don’t have to come from a middle class background or even a remotely wealthy background.”
Wilson was holding this event at Madison Park Academy for a reason. It is in the Sobrante Park area, a low-income residential neighborhood that has been troubled by crime in recent years—two men were shot and killed at a birthday party last year. But despite these challenges, this school is thriving. From a student body of just under 50 students nine years ago to 1,000 now, the school is a model for tackling Oakland’s declining attendance issues, improving student test scores, and integrating services for students’ families, including a food bank and adult computer classes.
The superintendent’s voice sped up. “You can come from a poor background, grow up on public assistance, move from house to house, have a single parent raising you, and you can go on to do whatever you want to do, because that’s what happened with me,” he said. Applause and shouts of excitement echoed through the gym.
Wilson grew up in Wichita, Kansas and Lincoln, Nebraska. He was raised by his mother, and they were poor—“very poor,” Wilson said in an early morning phone interview. His mother was an inspiration to him. She worked several jobs to sustain Wilson, his younger brother and sister. His mother literally broke her back while working, he said, so Wilson stayed local for college to help his mother get through the resulting surgeries. He attended Nebraska Wesleyan University and studied history and social science education.
Growing up poor shaped who Wilson became and what he values now. “It puts things in perspective and forces you to think about what’s truly important,” Wilson said. “It helped me develop empathy. It also led to me having a certain amount of impatience,” he added, which may explain his desire to move quickly, one that both he and his colleagues noted.
Wilson shares the story of his childhood regularly and readily. “He was a model of transparency,” said his colleague and friend H. Allen Smith about Wilson’s work in Denver, where he was an assistant superintendent before coming to Oakland. Smith, who first met Wilson in Colorado and was asked to come to Oakland as Wilson’s second-in-command, said he credits Wilson for starting conversations about values within the Denver school district. “It was a huge effort,” Smith said, and it “changed how we as adults did our work. I think the district is still benefitting.”
In his work in Oakland, he is still doing this—being transparent about who he is, what he values, and how it relates to young people. On a recent visit to a high school, Smith said, Wilson walked away “truly upset” because kids were told they couldn’t have extra food from the cafeteria beyond the standard meal. The school didn’t have the budget for it. Wilson “knew from his upbringing that that can sometimes be the only meal that they get,” said Smith. But in practical terms, Smith continued, “I’m thinking, ‘How are we going to come up with this money?’” Somehow, Wilson made it happen, and now the students can take extra food.
Wilson is 42, so many of his formative years were in the 1980s. He said the dialogue he heard from politicians at the time was that “poor people were lazy.” But Wilson saw the opposite in his own life, set by his mother’s example. As he grew up, he came to feel that “Greatness in our country should be measured by how we treat all people in our society.” This led Wilson to words like “equity” and “equality.” “I was infatuated with the civil rights movement and the NAACP’s efforts to champion the rights of social justice,” Wilson, who is African-American, told the Lincoln Journal Star in July.
He thought he would continue this work as a civil rights lawyer. But during his sophomore year in college, Wilson and one of his best friends began talking about education, and the role it played in leveling the playing field for young people. The two became interested in Linda Murray, an award-winning social studies teacher at Hyde Park Career Academy in Chicago. Wilson and his friend wanted to learn more about what she was doing, and they decided to observe her classroom. “Ms. Murray was tremendous at her craft, loved her students, and got a great deal out of them,” Wilson wrote in an email. “I did not leave fully sure I would teach,” but, he continued, “she inspired me to add education to my pre-law focus.”
In Wilson’s education courses, he learned lessons that inform his values today. One of his professors told Wilson that regardless of a student’s home life or other circumstantial situation, “If the students didn’t learn it, you didn’t teach it.” Decades later, Wilson is still thinking about this idea. “We can’t ask young people and families to adapt to the way we want to teach them,” he said in a phone interview. “We need to teach them in such a way that is conducive to how they learn.”
After he graduated from college, Wilson decided to teach. “I always loved children and believed in them,” Wilson said. He had planned to give back to the younger generation, and said he “considered it a responsibility.” He made a personal commitment to teach for five years. So far, it’s been 24.
Wilson’s first year of teaching was in Raleigh, North Carolina. Years two through five took him to the familiar Wichita, Kansas, where he taught high school students social studies and coached basketball and track.
Wilson’s first administrative offer was at his alma mater: Lincoln High School in Nebraska. He stepped in as the assistant principal, but missed Wichita and returned to the city as the assistant principal of South High School. Next he ascended to a principal role at Wichita’s Pleasant Valley Middle School. In this new position, Wilson said staff reported that teaching was a challenge because their students “weren’t educated” before they arrived at Pleasant Valley —they weren’t performing at grade level due to under-resourced schools or challenges at home.
But Wilson would not accept this. “If we are going to have to fix poverty or apathy before we educate kids, then that’s a problem,” he said. Poverty is not an excuse for low achievement, Wilson said. “Helping all students achieve is one of the solutions for addressing poverty.”
Pleasant Valley was where he adopted the mantra of “Success for all. No excuses.” He made plastic bracelets with those words and handed them out to his staff and students. There were hard-working educators at Pleasant Valley, Wilson said, but they needed support to get the “school culture focused on high achievement, and they need[ed] support in partnering with parents and students.” So Wilson and his team focused their efforts on these things. And test scores rose.
During this time, Wilson married his wife Tresa, who also works in education. They had a daughter, and twins were on the way. Then Wilson got a call from Montbello High School in Denver, Colorado, where there was an opening for the principal’s job. Running Montbello would be Wilson’s biggest challenge yet. “He had come into a school that had been failing for four generations,” said Smith, his Denver colleague, who had grown up in Denver and worked there for years. “The graduation numbers were very low. The proficiency numbers on state tests were very low. Teacher turnover was high, discipline was high. Attendance was low.” The school had cycled through 30 principals in 27 years, Smith said, and in the years prior to Wilson’s arrival, “Two students were killed on campus.”
Wilson took the job.
Wilson worked at Montbello for three years, and made it clear to students what was expected of them. To decrease distractions for those in classrooms, students couldn’t just hang out in the hallway, Wilson said in an interview with National Public Radio. Students were held accountable by teachers to attend their classes during classtime, something that was not strictly enforced before. By the time Wilson left Montbello in 2008, the number of Advanced Placement courses that were offered increased, math and reading scores were up, suspensions were down, and the acceptance rate at two and four-year colleges jumped from 35 to 95 percent.
When asked about how the school had increased its number of college-ready students, Wilson told NPR that at Montbello, the first thing they needed was order, and the second was better academic skills—“improving students’ reading, writing, and math problem solving skills, focusing on inquiry, trying to get students to be more active participants” in learning.
With these improvements in school performance, Wilson was promoted to larger leadership roles—an instructional superintendent for a year and then an assistant superintendent. But when Wilson left Montbello, it “started slipping again,” Smith said.
So Wilson led another turnaround effort, along with Smith, that reached beyond Montbello. The endeavor targeted 11 low-performing schools. The team created a new identity, the “Denver Summit Schools,” and a themed-learning focus, like international studies, for each of the schools. Students began passing their state tests. Parents began to notice. The schools “went from the lowest enrollment zone area in the district to the highest,” Smith said. While Montbello closed last school year, three themed high schools flourish in its place.
In Wilson’s assistant superintendent role, he worked under Tom Boasberg, Denver’s superintendent. Boasberg said Wilson’s biggest accomplishments in overseeing the middle and high schools in Denver were reducing the dropout rate by over 60 percent, raising academic performance on Advanced Placement exams—mostly for students of color—and increasing enrollment, because families began to see public schools as viable options. Wilson also worked to prepare students for college or the workforce. To do this, he raised expectations for students, teachers, and administrators by spending “a tremendous amount of time in schools reflecting on instructional practices and how to improve them,” Boasberg said. Wilson put the student at the center of all the work and helped teachers build classroom dynamics in which students spoke regularly and expressed their views. He pushed for students of color and low-income students to gain access to advanced courses, said Boasberg.
Smith said Wilson turned what were once known as “alternative schools”—schools for students with special needs—into “intensive pathways” to careers like hospitality or culinary arts. The schools changed completely. Before, kids who attended these schools thought of themselves as inferior to students at other schools, Smith said, but now, these students really want to be there.
Meanwhile in Oakland, a district with its own challenges was seeking a new leader. Gary Yee, a longtime school board member and the interim superintendent before Wilson arrived, said the school board was constantly getting the message that there were too many schools in the district, meaning that funds were not being used wisely and classrooms and buildings were not at capacity. A strong tension had grown between the charter schools and public schools as charters drew many students in, and dollars followed students. The district failed to get its finances together to successfully run an audit. And the teachers union and district struggled to agree on a contract.
When previous superintendent Tony Smith stepped down in 2013, the school board hired a search firm to find the next one. “We dreamed up this ideal person,” said school board vice president James Harris (District 7), someone who “listens to community, mends the charter relationship.” They wanted someone, Harris said, who “could bring to light great leaders like Marcus Foster,” Oakland’s first African-American superintendent who believed in the value of all Oakland students, and was assassinated by the Symbionese Liberation Army three years into his tenure. They wanted someone, Harris said, who “could take on the cultural challenges” of Oakland, work with a community that likes to be involved and heard, and work directly with schools.
Board member David Kakishiba (District 2) added that the board sought someone who understood “that school change is largely driven at the school site level,” could connect the administrative offices and schools, and someone who “had strong high school experience and a track record for helping to dramatically improve poor performing high schools.”
“By accident, we found Antwan in Denver,” said Harris. “He really turned out to be that guy, at least on paper. After six months of working with him, he’s still that guy.”
For Wilson, Oakland was special. He’d received calls about other superintendent jobs, several of which offered “more in salary and benefits and less challenge,” he said. And Oakland was interested in the changes he had experience making, like increasing graduation rates and decreasing drop-out rates, Wilson said. He liked Oakland’s emphasis on community schools that provide support beyond just academics—social and emotional services, and health centers. And he was drawn to Oakland’s boldness in calling attention to African-American male student achievement through an office specifically devoted to that.
“Oakland was the only place I went after, and I went all in,” he said.
Around 20 qualified candidates applied for the job. Five were interviewed. Harris said it was a concern for him that Wilson had never lived in Oakland. Chris Dobbins of District 6 said Wilson’s relatively young age and the fact that he hadn’t been a superintendent before gave the board member a bit of pause. But after interviews closed, the board was unanimous: Wilson. And when he took the job, his wife gave him a gift, a silver and black bracelet. It said: “Success for all. No excuses.”
On a recent Tuesday, Wilson’s morning schedule consisted of a breakfast with the Oakland Chamber of Commerce and a weekly school visit. This week it was to Hillcrest Elementary School in the Rockridge neighborhood. At the Chamber of Commerce meeting Wilson’s team showed a video featuring Oakland students, dotted with students saying “I’m ready” as goals of an improved district were discussed. The video clicked off and Wilson greeted a crowd working on their plates of eggs and potatoes. “I’m ready,” he said.
Wilson shared his personal story and his biggest achievements. He celebrated the passage of Measure N, a parcel tax that raises funds to create career-focused programs for all Oakland students. He fielded questions, stepping back from a wooden podium and resting his index finger over his lips to consider his answer. Before Wilson finished, he encouraged those in attendance to fill out cards scattered on the tables reading “Let’s Link Up!” and offering suggestions for how businesspeople could help, like by mentoring a student, or visiting a classroom to share their expertise. A line of people 15 deep waited to speak with him at the end of the breakfast.
Later in the day, accompanied by Smith and a deputy superintendent, he toured the school, stopping in classrooms and talking to the students. In a kindergarten class, he squatted down to ask two students what they were learning and if they were having fun. He did this in the next room, and the next, and the next. “When you see him talking to kids, he lights up,” Smith said.
After Wilson’s last stop in the sixth grade, he spoke to Hillcrest principal Lysbeth Hines. “What I see here is very good,” he said. As the group walked back towards the main office, continuing their conversation in hushed tones so as not to disturb the students in the classrooms they were passing, Wilson bent down, picked a discarded candy wrapper of the floor, put it in his pocket, and continued walking.
This focus on detail, efficiency, and students are all qualities that Wilson’s colleagues say have led to the positive reception that he’s had so far in Oakland. Principals say “This is the first time we’ve truly been able to get support and we’re actively being able to make decisions in our schools,” said Smith. The usual “nay sayers” at school board meetings are backing him, board member Dobbins said.
But most of the work is still ahead of Wilson. “He’s a great character,” board vice president Harris said. “But we’re in the ‘show me’ business. I’ve seen people responding well. But now we have to move it and change outcomes. The jury’s still out.”
Yee said that as superintendent, Wilson still has to continue improving high schools, settle a contract with employees, and improve the district’s fiscal solvency. And it’s happening, Yee said—“He’s moving forward on high school stuff, on reorganizing central” administrative offices. But Yee, who studied superintendents and their transitions in Oakland for his doctoral dissertation research, points out that in the long-term, it is normal for a superintendent to be “brought in because of their specialty, and then in a few years new problems arise.”
But Wilson said he doesn’t find Oakland’s challenges daunting. “I saw the district as a great opportunity to make a difference for students,” he wrote, reflecting on the moment when he chose to throw his hat into the ring for the school’s top job. “I saw the potential to work collaboratively to help transform the lives of children.”
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