The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

One year after arriving in D.C., a schools chancellor under fire

D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson reviews the findings from the final independent auditor’s examination regarding District policies on attendance and graduation outcomes at the Wilson Building on January 29, 2018, in Washington. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Antwan Wilson almost had a quiet first year leading D.C. Public Schools.

He visited each of the system’s 115 campuses, meeting with teachers and principals and establishing himself as an approachable leader. He largely maintained the status quo established by his high-profile predecessors. And he negotiated a contract with the teachers union — something that hadn’t happened since 2012.

Then, 10 months into the chancellor’s tenure, scandal erupted, throwing into question the heralded successes of D.C. schools over the past decade. A city-commissioned investigation discovered last month that 1 in 3 graduates in 2017 missed too many classes or improperly took makeup classes, undermining the validity of hundreds of diplomas.

And then a bombshell landed Friday: D.C. officials revealed Wilson had skirted rules of his own making and bypassed the competitive school lottery system so his daughter could secure a coveted spot in a high-performing high school. The deputy mayor who helped Wilson’s family circumvent those rules resigned.

Now, the chancellor finds himself in a fraught position, enveloped in two scandals. The roots of one — the graduation imbroglio — were planted before his arrival. But the lottery scandal is his to own.

In an interview weeks before the lottery episode was revealed, Wilson pledged to repair the failings identified by the graduation investigation.

“I’m not interested in pointing fingers. I’m focused on meeting the needs of young people — that’s the commitment that I have,” Wilson said. “I have always worked extremely hard to make a difference for young people and I will continue to do that.”

In an apology ordered by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) — his boss — Wilson took full responsibility Friday for the lottery system mess and told District residents: “I’m here today to apologize and ask for your forgiveness.”

But on Saturday, a D.C. council member, Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), tweeted he had “lost confidence in our D.C. Public Schools leadership” and called on Wilson to resign.

“I do not believe Chancellor Wilson can rebuild the confidence of the community or the council with this latest breach of trust,” White wrote.

Representatives of the D.C. schools said Friday that beyond his written apology, Wilson would not immediately be addressing the lottery situation.

Bowser disclosed that the transfer of Wilson’s daughter had broken a policy banning preferential treatment for the children of government officials that the chancellor wrote just months earlier. When his family decided the school attended by his oldest child was not a good fit, Wilson approached a deputy mayor, and the teen was transferred to Wilson High School in Northwest Washington without having to participate in the school lottery.

Wilson, a former teacher and principal, left his job leading the Oakland, Calif., schools last February to replace Kaya Henderson, who presided over D.C. schools for more than five years. When tapping Wilson, Bowser hailed the chancellor as a “proven manager” who could focus on closing the city’s persistent achievement gap between affluent and low-income students.

Education watchdogs said the graduation scandal made Wilson’s mandate as chancellor clear: He must change the culture of the school system fostered by his predecessors.

The investigation found that teachers felt compelled to graduate students who were chronically absent or didn’t properly complete makeup work, otherwise their schools would not meet lofty graduation goals.

In the earlier interview, Wilson pledged to alter the culture of the district and invoked virtues he frequently cites. Students need to feel loved, he said. That means caring for them and holding them to high expectations. And teachers, he said, need to act with integrity and feel supported. That, in turn, will raise academic performance, he said.

“In every successful school that you see,” Wilson said, “these feelings are there.”

Still, Wilson — who comes from the same education circle as Henderson and her predecessor as chancellor, Michelle Rhee — believes in testing and graduation metrics and supports the controversial evaluation system enacted by Rhee, which ties teacher bonuses and job security to the educators’ annual assessments.

When he took over the school system last year, Wilson pledged to boost the four-year graduation rate to 85 percent by 2022, an ambitious goal he still stands by. The graduation rate — its validity thrown into doubt after the city-commissioned investigation — stood at 73 percent in 2017.

“I believe all kids can graduate; let me be clear on that,” Wilson said. “For me, the alternative of not expecting kids to graduate is something I can’t contemplate.”

But Wilson said he hopes to create an environment in which educators feel comfortable sounding an alarm when they spot wrongdoing. He created the Office of Integrity following the graduation investigation, a central repository for teachers and families to lodge complaints that he said will reach his desk.

He attends community meetings and once a week, goes to lunch with a small group of principals at the Hilton Garden Inn near his office in the NoMa neighborhood.

“He inherited quite a difficult situation,” said Ruth Wattenberg, the Ward 3 representative on the D.C. State Board of Education. “I have high hopes for him, but I think he needs to step up to the problems that have been revealed in a much more aggressive way.”

Ward 8 council member Trayon White Sr. (D) said Wilson has been accessible and appears to understand the challenges confronting students east of the Anacostia River.

“I’ve been able to work with him more than any other past chancellor,” White, who previously served on the State Board of Education, said in an interview earlier this month. “He gets it.”

But because his education philosophy appears to so closely align with Henderson’s, some educators question whether he can make changes they say are necessary to remedy shortcomings identified in the graduation investigation. Laura Fuchs, a social studies teacher at Woodson High and an active member of the teachers union, said the school system needs a leader who will delve into the effectiveness and role of the teacher evaluation system Rhee enacted in 2009.

“I don’t see how it’s going to change,” Fuchs said. “If they don’t fundamentally change the tools and how they train people to use them, the culture of fear and intimidation isn’t going to change.”

In his first year as D.C. schools chancellor, Wilson also endured criticism from education activists in Oakland. A few months after Wilson left Oakland, the beleaguered district faced such woeful finances that the Board of Education there ordered $15.1  million in budget cuts. As California educators blamed Wilson for some of the problems in Oakland, he has minimized the troubles and his role in them.

A spokeswoman for the chancellor declined to comment on Oakland for this article.

Now, Wilson’s ability to lead the school system in the nation’s capital is under fire after the revelations that his family broke city policy by bypassing the lottery system and transferring his daughter to a sought-after high school.

“Misrepresentation, lying, cheating by making up your own rules — these are serious missteps that should have consequences,” D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson wrote in an email to The Post, noting that her office was not investigating Wilson’s actions. “In the case of the chancellor I believe the actions merit his resignation.”

Patterson’s call for Wilson’s resignation was first reported by Washington City Paper.

During a visit this month to Ludlow-Taylor Elementary School in Northeast Washington, Wilson popped into classrooms, interacted with students and sifted through school data with the principal.

“There’s a sense that he’s been in our shoes before, and we appreciate that,” said Andrew Smith, the principal of Ludlow-Taylor.

Jennifer Barrios contributed to this report.