D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser is expected to name Antwan Wilson — the superintendent of schools in Oakland, Calif. — as her nominee to lead the District’s school system on Tuesday, according to city officials, betting that an outsider with fresh eyes will bring new ideas for addressing wide achievement gaps between the city’s needy and affluent children.
Bowser’s pick for schools chancellor is one of her most politically consequential decisions and signals a willingness to take a chance: The city’s school system has gained a reputation as one of the nation’s fastest improving over the past nine years, a period of sweeping and often controversial change ushered in first by chancellor Michelle Rhee and then continued by Rhee’s friend and onetime deputy, Kaya Henderson.
But Henderson stepped down earlier this year, and Bowser has decided against the continuity of an internal candidate, choosing instead to go with Wilson, who has built a reputation as an up-and-comer within the same education reform circles that are home to Rhee and Henderson.
The news of Wilson’s hire was first reported Monday night by NBC4. The D.C. Council must confirm his nomination to make it official.
An African American man, Wilson arrives at a time when Bowser and the school system are particularly focused on improving outcomes for young black men, whose test scores and graduation rates lag city averages.
Wilson, 44, has said he knows that schools can change the trajectory for poor children because he was one himself. He grew up with a single mother and a lot of instability, living in 15 homes and going to 10 schools between kindergarten and high school graduation.
He made it, he has said, with excellent teachers helping him navigate the path to and through college.
“Schools can save lives,” he said earlier this year in his state of the schools address for Oakland Unified School District. “They saved mine.”
Wilson began his career as a teacher in North Carolina and Kansas before landing in Denver for nearly a decade, first as principal and then as an assistant superintendent. He was credited with helping to turn around struggling schools, increase enrollment in Advanced Placement courses and boost high school graduation rates.
Wilson underwent leadership training at the Broad Academy, an initiative to train urban school superintendents funded by billionaire philanthropist and charter school supporter Eli Broad.
The Oakland school board hired Wilson in 2014 as the financially troubled district was emerging from a long period of state receivership. During his two and a half years there, graduation rates have risen and suspension rates have fallen.
But Wilson ran into a buzz saw of opposition as he pushed to create a more cooperative environment for Oakland’s traditional schools and its charter schools, which enroll about 25 percent of the city’s 48,000 public school students. His proposal for a common enrollment system — which he argued would simplify a chaotic enrollment process that was too onerous for families — became a flash point.
Another point of contention was Wilson’s push to bring special education students into mainstream classrooms.
Critics, including many in the teachers’ union, accused him of trying to aid charter schools at the expense of the city’s traditional public schools. Protests erupted at school board meetings, where teachers and activists — many of them white, according to the Bay Area News Group — accused Wilson of being “the face of new Jim Crow.”
“I’m not going to stand by while someone who doesn’t look like me accuses me of carrying out some form of Jim Crow,” Wilson told the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this year. “I teach my own kids that no one can take your dignity and only you can control your temper. I tell them that I know who I am. I know my history.”
He has said that he isn’t in the business of battling charter schools, but in doing what he can to help ensure that children have good schools to attend: “The best schools, district and charter, have a lot to teach all of us about what great classes and schools can look like,” he said in his state of the schools address.
The District already has a common enrollment system for its traditional and charter schools. Charter schools have a much larger market share here — close to half of public school students — and have become an accepted fact of life for city officials. Bowser’s administration has made a priority of improving collaborating between the two sectors.