D.C. Council members on Thursday asked Antwan Wilson, the nominee to lead D.C. Public Schools, to provide details on how he plans to close achievement gaps between white and minority students, increase enrollment, and boost teacher and principal satisfaction in the city’s schools.
If confirmed, Wilson said he would build on the changes put in place under the previous two school chancellors to make the system a national model for providing a high-quality education to all students, regardless of income or race.
“I want families to have public school options they are proud of and recommend to their neighbors because their children are thriving,” Wilson told the council’s education committee.
During a question-and-answer session that lasted for more than two hours, council members asked Wilson about a variety of topics, including his plans to fix the system’s relationship with the city’s public charter schools and his vision for improving communication between schools and parents. But the majority of the questions focused on how Wilson would close achievement gaps between white and minority students, a perennial struggle in the District.
Wilson told council members that schools might need to invest resources in adding time for students who are struggling, perhaps in the form of tutoring programs or lengthening the school day or year.
He also wants to invest resources in programs that make school attractive to students. He said he believes that middle schools should require students to take classes such as speech, debate or choir to increase engagement.
Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who leads the education committee, pressed Wilson to prove that he has been successful in closing gaps in Oakland, Calif. — where Wilson most recently served as superintendent for two years after working in Denver public schools for six years — noting that gaps in test scores there during his tenure have widened.
Wilson did not specifically address those scores, instead noting that educators need to look at multiple data points to judge whether a school system is successful.
“For too long in our country, we have only looked at one indicator,” Wilson said. “On one stance, we are saying that we want schools to be judged fairly, and on the other stance, we are saying we only want to look at assessment scores.”
Council members also wanted to know how Wilson will boost enrollment. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) asked how Wilson would address the decline in enrollment at the middle school level, a consistently challenging grade level for D.C. Public Schools and a point at which some families choose to leave for charters, private schools or neighboring jurisdictions.
Wilson said that the school system needs to create programs that are able to compete with charter schools and that it should offer parents safe middle schools where students feel welcome and are offered classes that help prepare them for high school, such as foreign language classes.
“If you can offer those things, then you’ll be attractive to families,” Wilson said.
Thursday’s hearing, which also included testimony from community members, is the last meeting before council members are expected to vote Dec. 20 on Wilson’s nomination.
Wilson is Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s only candidate to run the city’s schools, which still struggle with achievement but have seen improvements in the past decade under Kaya Henderson and Michelle Rhee. In a statement after the hearing, Bowser, a Democrat, said that she and Wilson “believe in the importance of community and parent engagement, and I am eager for him to get to work as soon as possible.”
She added, “I urge the council to confirm his nomination so we can begin this exciting new chapter for D.C. schools.”
More than 30 people testified at Thursday’s hearing, many of them speaking in support of Wilson’s confirmation.
Suzanne Wells, the parent of a sixth-grader at Eliot-Hine Middle School, called Wilson a career educator who “seems genuinely committed to meeting the educational needs of all students.” Despite her praise, Wells said she wants to see the council incorporate a requirement in Wilson’s contract that he needs to increase enrollment in D.C. schools by 3 percent each year.
Liz Davis, president of the Washington Teacher’s Union, said the union has a “number of concerns” with Wilson’s selection. Wilson has a record of endorsing reforms that have proved “to be moderately successful at best,” Davis said.
Davis, who sat on a selection panel of education and community leaders, accused Bowser of violating city law because she informed the panel that Wilson was a candidate only after she decided to hire him. A statute in city law notes that the mayor shall provide the committee with resumes of individuals under consideration for the job.
Grosso wishes Bowser and her team “would have done some things very differently,” but said the council’s attorneys found no wrongdoing in the process.