Antwan Wilson is the chancellor of D.C. Public Schools.
In every ward and every one of our schools, families, community members and D.C. Public Schools' own team members have told me about their dreams for our children. Their ideas and hopes inform the school district's direction and particularly our new strategic plan.
Our public schools are the fastest-improving of any major district in the nation, reinforced by record progress over the past year, which included growth for students in every grade, as well as for students of color, low-income students, students with special needs and students learning English. That's an enormous credit to hard-working teachers, principals, staff members, students and families, as well as to my predecessor, Kaya Henderson. I'm grateful to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) for the opportunity to lead this extraordinary team.
D.C. families are rightly proud of that progress — and rightly unwilling to rest on it. With uncommon generosity, they have spoken of what our schools must do for all young people in our city. They know that too many children have been left out of the school district's progress and that gaps of race and income remain painfully wide.
Their comments boil down to a righteous demand captured in three words: excellence, equity and love. Families, educators and community members expect us to offer students a world-class education that will prepare them to think for themselves, work with others and lead in today's complex world. They expect us to do that for every student in every neighborhood — without exception. And they expect us to do it with the same caring we would show our own children.
I know we can do it because I know what school did for me.
I was the expendable child. I attended 10 schools and lived in 15 homes. Teachers put me on the path I am on today.
That power of schools and teachers is the belief underlying our strategic plan, which sets ambitious targets for the next five years, including doubling the number of students prepared for college and careers — and tripling it among students of color.
Parents frequently ask me, "What's my Sidwell Friends?" They know that an excellent education isn't simply about attaining knowledge; it's also about being pushed intellectually, giving and taking in thoughtful discussion, and gathering a wide range of experiences that build leadership and readiness to solve new problems. I'm thrilled to find chess clubs, debate societies and seminars in schools in every ward, but we have far to go in offering all students the rigorous education they deserve.
We must build on what has worked — ranging from strong curriculum to a deep investment in talent — while giving schools and their leadership greater autonomy to innovate. We must ensure that our schools offer all students experiences that broaden their sense of the world and their own possibilities, growing a range of options that already includes international travel, college courses and internships at prestigious workplaces.
Excellence exists in our schools today, but too many of our children never experience it. It's our task to develop a clear vision for equity that addresses race, income, disability, English-language fluency and other traditional markers for disadvantage, and then act on that vision in ways that strengthen opportunity and make transparent policies and funds.
Equity, however, isn't just a matter of resources and programs. It's also about letting students know they are welcomed and loved. Our schools must be safe places that do not tolerate bigotry or hatred. There's no task I take more seriously.
A wide set of social and emotional skills and traits — patience, grit, resilience and more — are vital factors in student success. Our students must see themselves as worthy of respect and as having agency. That matters for everyone, and especially for students traumatized by violence or chaos. Our schools must see students as whole people and meet them where they are with mental and physical health services, alternatives to out-of-school punishment, and other types of support.
Teachers also experience extraordinary stress, and we must make sure they have the support they need, as well.
More than almost any other endeavor, education rests on the talent, commitment and caring of its people. That's why I'm determined to make D.C. Public Schools an even better place to work. Our tentative teacher contract is a crucial first step, but there's far more for us to do to retain and support the strongest teachers and principals and improve the recruitment of bilingual teachers, male teachers of color and other high-need talent.
"Excellence, equity and love" is not a vision schools can accomplish alone. It's something we can only accomplish together, and with parents as our most important partners.
The stakes are enormous.
On a recent school visit, a 6-year-old immigrant student named Oscar presented me with a framed poem. An excerpt:
Oh my homeland, oh my homeland!
Now I am at the top of the hill,
At the other side of the sea,
And at the end, I crossed the border.
Now I am here
So I can accomplish my dreams.
After enormous sacrifice, Oscar's family chose to entrust him to our schools. Our task, together, is to ensure that our schools are worthy of that trust.