Antwan Wilson is drawn to challenging school districts.
In Denver, he was solely interested in working as a principal in the system’s worst school. He accepted a job leading the Oakland Unified School District at a time when the California system faced declining enrollment and was in financial disarray.
Now, he’s ready to take on D.C. Public Schools and its yawning achievement gap.
“I run to places where I believe I am going to be most needed,” Wilson said. “It’s 100 percent possible to educate every child. Sometimes people say that’s unrealistic, but I just don’t believe that.”
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) last week nominated Wilson, 44, to lead the District’s school system, which still struggles with achievement but has seen improvements in the past decade under Kaya Henderson and Michelle Rhee.
District schools are experiencing increased enrollment and a rise in graduation rates and test scores as the city gentrifies, but the system is still plagued by a persistent achievement gap between white and minority students. Wilson said eliminating the disparities — something that has proven extraordinarily difficult — will be his top priority as chancellor.
He believes schools need to invest resources in adding time for students who are struggling academically. That might mean a longer school day or year, or additional tutoring programs.
Wilson also said he wants to ensure students are fully engaged in school. In middle school, for example, he said it’s critical that all students take classes such as speech, debate and robotics and that they have access to after-school clubs and sports.
Educators and community members in Wilson’s two previous school systems — Denver and Oakland — say Wilson pursued ambitious reforms and is deeply committed to improving academic outcomes for the neediest students. He is seen as a driving force in improving academics in Denver. But in just more than two years in Oakland, Wilson has struggled to make sweeping changes, facing intense backlash from parents and teachers on many of his most ambitious initiatives.
Some say they are disappointed that Wilson is leaving after such a short time in the top post of a school district that has had high leadership turnover during the past decade. The San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board criticized Wilson, saying it “rings hollow to hear superintendents talk about their concern for the students when so many are so eager to bolt for the next bigger payday.”
“There’s some disappointment that he’s leaving so abruptly and in the middle of his contract,” said Kim Davis, an Oakland parent who sits on the city’s Parents United for Public Schools leadership committee.
Wilson said he was committed to staying in Oakland and was not actively looking for a new job until about five weeks ago, when the firm hired to lead the District’s search called to ask if he was interested in the job. At first he said he wasn’t, but a conversation with Bowser enticed him. Reporting to the mayor in a city that already has a working relationship with a robust charter sector and community partners was “too compelling” to turn down, he said.
“Oakland had prepared me very well for this opportunity,” Wilson said.
When Wilson arrived in Oakland in 2014, 61 percent of students were graduating on time, according to data from California’s Department of Education. A year later, under Wilson, the rate increased slightly. Data for the Class of 2016 is not yet available.
“It’s hard to tell what he’s done for Oakland because he’s only been here for two whole schools years, and a lot of what he accomplished were things that were put in place before he arrived,” Davis said.
In his strategic plan for the Oakland school system, Wilson hoped to reach a graduation rate of 85 percent by 2020. He also set a target to more than double third-grade literacy rates.
To meet those goals, Wilson sought input from teachers, parents, community organizations and school leaders to improve the system’s five most troubled schools, which the board identified before he was hired. Charter schools could also submit proposals.
That did not sit well with the Oakland community.
Wilson was accused of trying to dismantle the public schools by replacing them with charters. The same criticisms were lobbed against Wilson when he later tried to improve the enrollment system to give parents the ability to simultaneously apply to enroll their children in public and charter schools.
D.C. already has a robust group of charter schools and the common application that Oakland resisted.
“Superintendent Wilson is deeply committed to ensuring that there are high-quality schools in every neighborhood,” said Jonathan Klein, chief executive of GO Public Schools, an Oakland-based education advocacy group. “He thinks families should know all of their school options. There are constituencies that frame that as being for charters.”
Other initiatives that received strong backlash included plans to restructure schools and integrate special-education students into regular classrooms.
Those who voiced concern at school board meetings at times also spewed personal attacks against Wilson, calling him an Uncle Tom and a practitioner of Jim Crow laws.
Allen Smith, Oakland’s former chief of schools, said the environment in Oakland made it nearly impossible for Wilson to be successful, but Smith said Wilson would have “died trying.”
“I don’t think he would ever admit this, but I believe he was deeply hurt that people saw him as anything other than a true warrior fighting for kids,” Smith said. “You have a guy who actually wants to be here, who knows how to do the work, and instead of embracing that, you are fighting him.”
In Denver, Wilson was more successful in turning things around. Beginning in 2005, Wilson spent three years as the principal of Montbello High School, one of the worst schools in the system.
“I was hearing things like ‘God bless you. Good luck.’ And that’s from the people who hired me, that was central office,” Wilson said.
Under his leadership, the school saw the number of students who went on to enroll in two- and four-year colleges increase from 36 percent in 2005 to 43 percent in 2008, according to data from Denver Public Schools. The school no longer exists; it was phased out and replaced with three new programs, a plan that Wilson supported.
Wilson was then challenged to expand that success to schools across the district. He was charged with overseeing all high schools, turnaround schools, middle schools and alternative schools. Wilson is credited with boosting high school graduation rates, redesigning the system’s alternative schools and increasing enrollment in Advanced Placement courses.
“We owe a tremendous amount to him,” said Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg.
Boasberg said he and Wilson often sought to emulate the D.C. public school system’s reform efforts. Perhaps one of Wilson’s greatest challenges as a new chancellor will be following Henderson, someone Boasberg called “one of the most thoughtful and strategic superintendents in the country.”
“They share a number of strengths, but they are different people,” Boasberg said.
If confirmed by the D.C. Council, Wilson’s job will be to build on Henderson’s reforms. Bowser is not seeking a dramatic change in direction but has said community members expressed their desire to see someone who is “always out into the community and focused on closing the achievement gap.”
The council must vote to confirm Wilson before he is officially hired and plans to host two more hearings on the matter, one Monday and one Thursday, at which Wilson is expected to testify. At a council breakfast last week, David Grosso (I-At Large), the chairman of the education committee, described Wilson as a “good choice” and commended the mayor on the search.
“The mayor has done a great job with the process,” Grosso said.
Bowser appointed a panel of education and community leaders and enlisted a private recruiting firm to help find the next chancellor. City law requires her to solicit opinion from the panel on the hiring. Jennifer Niles, the deputy mayor for education, said Wilson came under consideration after conversations she and the search firm had with education leaders nationwide.
“Antwan’s name came up over and over again,” Niles said. “Mostly with people who said, I don’t think you could get him to leave Oakland.”
Washington Teachers’ Union President Elizabeth Davis, who sat on the hiring panel, accused Bowser of violating city law because she informed the panel that Wilson was a candidate only after she decided to hire him. The Bowser administration has said it followed protocol.