This week, Antwan Wilson becomes the chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, stepping into one of the most scrutinized school superintendent roles in the country — a position that vaulted former chancellors Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson to national prominence.
It’s a critical pick for our children and for the legacy of progress DCPS has made toward providing every student with access to equitable education. For example, under Henderson’s tenure, DCPS became the fastest-improving urban school district in the United States. In 2015, National Assessment of Educational Progress reading scores for fourth-grade students in DCPS grew by seven points over the 2013 test. Under her leadership, enrollment increased after decades of decline, and graduation rates climbed to the highest they’ve been in the District’s history.
Superintendents and their staff can make a huge impact in the lives of their students and teachers, and I am heartened as I learn more about Wilson’s track record of collaboration, focus, talent and innovation as superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District in California.
The national nonprofit I work for, Education Pioneers, believes that extraordinary change in education requires extraordinary people. We recruit, connect and advance leaders in education who solve problems from outside of the classroom so students and teachers succeed in the classroom.
At Education Pioneers, we also spend a lot of time thinking about and researching what makes a transformative education leader, whether he or she is a superintendent or just entering the education sector. From what we’ve seen in collaborating with Wilson in Oakland, we think he demonstrates many important leadership traits.
• Bridge-building: Transformative leaders collaborate with community organizations and families to support and develop the whole child, from social-emotional learning to nutrition. They also oversee enrollment processes that provide equitable access to high-performing schools.
Time and again we saw Henderson collaborate with community leaders and families to find common ground in the best interests of D.C. students and their schools. In Oakland, Wilson set up key partnerships with city and community organizations, and he created the African American Male Achievement initiative that has been recognized as a groundbreaking effort to address opportunity gaps. Bridge-building leaders create authentic connections and engage in a continuous process of growth and development. They should be comfortable reflecting on their own biases, actions and experiences.
• A talent mind-set. Transformative leaders cultivate a diverse talent pool and a driven set of leaders within their organization. They develop collaborative approaches to improve teacher preparation with universities and nonprofit organizations. They improve supervision, evaluation and support systems for school leaders. They provide clear teacher career ladders and supports, beginning at the point of hire. They shift from compliance-based human resources practices to strategic human capital management.
Henderson was a champion of talented people: of finding and supporting them and helping them grow. She invested in teacher and staff development and gave principals autonomy. She found ways to get the “stuff” of school operations off principals’ long lists of responsibilities to ensure they’d have time to be the instructional leaders our teachers and schools need, and she shrank the central office to divert more resources to schools.
Wilson was recognized for increasing resources and support for schools serving the most disadvantaged students.
• Continual progress. Transformative leaders are always innovating and prepared to respond to new and existing challenges. Education Pioneers alumnus Brian Pick is chief of teaching and learning for DCPS. In the 2015-2016 school year, he launched the DCPS Cornerstone initiative, which created rigorous lessons for every DCPS student in reading, math, science, social studies, art, music, physical education, health and world languages, and was developed by top teachers in DCPS.
Henderson supported innovation at DCPS. Wilson did also in Oakland when he oversaw the redesign of five high schools.
It might seem from the outside that school district leaders are distant from the classroom, but in the District, we know that school chancellors and other central office leaders have an enormous effect on the success of our teachers and students. Wilson does not have an easy job ahead of him and will need support from our community.
The community should get behind Wilson’s bold vision to ensure the success of all D.C. students.
The writer is director of Education Pioneers.
Read more about this issue: