There’s a green check mark on a map for every school that Antwan Wilson has toured since he was selected last fall to be the chancellor of D.C. Public Schools.
Now in his second month on the job, he has been to 40 out of 115 schools. He plans to go to all of them by the end of the school year in June.
During his visits, Wilson seeks to blend in as an observer and is so soft-spoken that his voice at times falls almost to a whisper. He often asks the principal to describe the school’s “wins” and what support the school needs to keep improving. He stops by classrooms to sit with students during a math or reading lesson. He asks about their work and what they most enjoy about school.
The Washington Post sat down with Wilson on Wednesday before his visit to C.W. Harris Elementary School in Southeast Washington, exactly one month after he took the helm of DCPS. He described what he has learned about the 48,000-student school system, the District and his relationship with the federal government.
The interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
The Post: What new things did you learn being in D.C. that you didn’t know during your interview process and your visits leading up to your first day?
Wilson: I can’t separate the visits from November to now that way. My impressions are that there has been a lot of great work here. There are some amazing leaders leading the schools, some awesome teachers and strong systems put in to support those educators.
There is great care that people have about schools in the city. I think that is what we need if we are going to have the types of improvements we need to have.
In terms of what can be better, it’s related to what we all want to see, and that is to make sure the progress is pervasive throughout all of our city and all of our schools and touching all of our students and parents.
The Post: You are gearing up for several listening sessions that you’ll use to create your long-term plan for the school system. You say you want to hear from parents and others, but you also say you have many ideas. Can you share your top two or three ideas?
Wilson: I won’t share those. The general themes for me are equity and excellence. The work we do will focus on those two big themes. And then, I just believe school should be fun.
Feedback is really important. It’s not something you just do as an exercise. Every place is different. The needs of different cities may be similar, but the way you want to go about it is contextual.
When I was in Oakland, [Calif.,] I didn’t come in and say, “Let’s do common enrollment.” Those were things parents were saying.
I look forward to hearing what people say here are things that are important.
The Post: DCPS recently announced it will spend $6 million for middle school extracurricular activities and cocurricular classes, including hockey, robotics and others. You have said the number one priority for you is closing the achievement gap. How will this help?
Wilson: If we want to boost student achievement and also close the achievement gap, we have to engage kids.
When we connect students, we inspire hope, joy and excitement in students, it gives us an opportunity to go deeper in math, science and the literacy because students wants to be in school.
Those things made a tremendous difference for me.
Joy precedes achievement. People need to like what they are doing first, and when we can get that, when we are winning on that, then I will show you schools where we can educate the kids.
The Post: President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have promised to expand alternatives to public schools, including vouchers that allow children to attend private and religious schools with the aid of taxpayer dollars.
An article in the San Francisco Chronicle in December quoted you as saying you may be open to the idea of expanding the voucher program. Are you in favor of expanding the voucher program in D.C.?
Wilson: The San Francisco Chronicle didn’t get that right. My perspective is the District already has a voucher program.
My focus isn’t on the voucher program.
I believe in choice. I grew up poor, and my mother literally moved from one city to another to find a school system she thought would make a difference. I don’t want parents to have to do that. I want parents to have access to schools that they believe are right.
I want to make sure if choices are being expanded that it’s not at the expense of funding DCPS schools.
I also believe they should be held to the same expectations as our public schools around assessments. Let’s see if they are better.
The Post: Some people in the District are hungry to have leaders willing to fight against what they say is federal overreach. Do you see yourself in that role?
Wilson: It depends on what it is.
If it’s good for kids, then I want it. I don’t care who comes up with it. If it’s bad for kids, if it’s telling us we need to do things a particular way, or if it’s a perspective where folks who are not spending time regularly in our schools, meeting with our teachers and parents, are trying to dictate how it has to be done — then, yeah.
I like to see myself as someone who is effective in getting things done. I am not the loudest voice in the room. I try to be the most determined person in the room. I try to be the most clear person in the room when I am trying to get a point across. But I also work really hard to try to understand the perspective of others and what is motivating that perspective, so that I can be effective in trying to demonstrate the weaknesses in the argument that the other side may be promoting if that argument and that strategy is going to hurt our kids.
If the federal government is suggesting things that are bad for D.C., then they are going to hear from me that I think they are bad for D.C.
The Post: How are you enjoying D.C.?
Wilson: It’s like asking a kid if he’s enjoying an amusement park, because the historical side, the nerd side of me, has that box checked.
And also the ability to be anonymous.
The Post: For now. [Former schools chancellor Kaya Henderson told The Post she took to shopping at odd hours because too many people recognized her.]
Wilson: Yes, but the president of the United States is down the street. We’ve got senators and all the ambassadors. At some level I am not. But in other places, I can be.
Look, I couldn’t be anonymous ever in Oakland, and as much as I enjoyed it, sometimes it’s good to be anonymous.