People describe Antwan Wilson, the assistant superintendent of Denver Public Schools who has been nominated to lead Oakland Unified School District, as having lots of energy and a track record of improving equity in education. Those attributes will be important if he becomes superintendent in Oakland because this district is moving on a dizzying array of initiatives, more than half of which are aimed at repairing inequities in opportunities for students.
The school board’s vote on Wilson’s nomination is scheduled for April 30 at 5 p.m.
Almost simultaneously, OUSD is:
That makes seven initiatives. But they’re not all that will be on the new superintendent’s plate. OUSD also faces several steep challenges the new superintendent will have to address.
1. Closing the achievement gap
The most urgent is closing a wide achievement gap that persists between low-income students of color and wealthier white and Asian students. It is an opportunity gap in many respects, with entire schools in high-poverty areas floundering. Using the state’s Academic Performance Index as one measure of academic achievement — albeit a faulty and incomplete one — there was 200-point gap between scores achieved by white students and by African-American and Latino students last year. The gap is also 200 points wide when looked at through the lens of income. Oakland’s API scores were 896 for white students, 644 for African-American students and 687 for its Latino/a students. Low-income students of all races achieved only a 687 API. At two high schools in Oakland’s poorest neighborhoods, the school API is in the 500s.
Although graduation rates have improved in Oakland, particularly among African-American students, about 47 percent of boys who are African-American or Latino are still not graduating in four years, based on 2012 numbers, even though that’s a four percent improvement from the year earlier. OUSD graduation rate improved for all students in district-operated high schools by two points that year to 62.5 percent. When continuation schools, independent study and charter schools are included, the graduation rate for at 59 percent.
“The biggest challenge for Oakland is to address teaching and learning and really figure out how to close achievement and opportunity gaps in the district – you know for a large percentage of students of color who are low income,” said Arun Ramanathan, executive director of Education Truest-West, a national think tank, and a parent of OUSD students. “That is front and center for Oakland.”
In Denver, Wilson is credited with closing the achievement gap as measured by graduation rates and scores by increasing opportunity for high schoolers. As the assistant superintendent in charge of high schools and college and career readiness, Wilson added rigor to the high school curriculum and increased the availability of Advanced Placement courses, which helped more kids get into college. He told National Public Radio that setting high standards and expecting a work ethic were the recipe.
“We have a program called Zeros Aren’t Permitted, which means that if you do not get your work done on your own time, then we will use some of your lunch time to provide you with time — where you’re actually expected to get that work done in there,” he said in an NPR interview from 2006 when he was principal of Montbello High School in Denver.
Later as assistant superintendent n Denver, Wilson ended the use of suspensions for all but the most serious offenses, replacing suspensions with in-school expulsions. That meant if a student was removed from a classroom for disruptive or harmful behavior, he or she still stayed in the school and still did the subject work, just in another place where they would not disrupt other students from learning. Many in Oakland also want suspensions to be eliminated from discipline because many education theorists say suspensions feed a school-to-prison pipeline by taking kids out of school and thus causing them to fall behind and eventually drop out.
Denver Public Schools’ high school graduation rate is about the same as Oakland’s. Last year, 61.3 percent of Denver Public School seniors graduated after having started high school four years earlier. Here of seniors attending Oakland public schools, 62.5 percent graduated last spring, although when students in continuation schools, charter schools and independent study are included, 59 percent graduated. But Denver’s graduation number represented a 22 percent increase over six years, according to Colorado figures.
2. Declining enrollment
A second big challenge facing OUSD is a continual loss of enrollment in its schools as more families move out of Oakland or enroll their children in charter schools, which OUSD funds, but which are independently managed. Currently, 10,000 students attend charter schools among the 46,000 students OUSD must budget for, while 36,180 students are in district-operated schools. With funds perennially short, the district often seems to be in an adversarial relationship with charter schools, competing with them for students and funds.
3. A shortage of Latino/a teachers
Thirdly, OUSD has been challenged to recruit Latino and Latina teachers, with parents, students and community members pleading for this. Its student population is 41 percent Latino, according to federal and state Education Department data, but that same data from the 2011-2012 school year shows that only 2.3 percent of OUSD teachers were Latino. That percentage has grown since then, the district says, but is still less than 10 percent. Students say it is important to have teachers that they believe will understand them and relate to them. Castlemont High School student Jacibe Gameros told Oakland Local that students sometimes have to translate for other students because not enough teachers speak Spanish.
Antwan Wilson comes from a district, Denver, that is 58 percent Latino, according to U.S. Department of Education figures, and about 17 percent of its teachers are Latino or Latina. That’s still a significant gap, but not as big as Oakland’s.
“I spent time in Denver. He is a team player, leader, folks trust and depend on him,” said OUSD board member Jumoke Hinton Hodge, one of three board members leading the search for a new superintendent. “He can build strong community partnerships. He has worked in a district with a large Latino population.”
Hope in a new leader who faced similar challenges
Very similar to Oakland’s school population, about 72 percent of Denver Public School students are low-income, as defined by eligibility for free or reduced lunch.
David Kakishiba, another OUSD board member leading the search, said Wilson has lots of traits that make him attractive candidate, “But we were most impressed by his work in reinvigorating troubled schools, eliminating inequity and producing results for all students,” he said. He added that Wilson works through setting high expectations of his students, and created “a strong college-going culture everywhere he’s worked.” Wilson is credited with helping to infuse a college-going culture in Denver high schools, adding rigor to the curriculum and inspiring greater numbers to attend college, particularly low-income students of color.
In Denver, like Oakland, many students have not gained proficiency in math and English for their grade levels. But under Wilson, Denver high school students proficiency rose in all areas. According to state figures, the percentage of Denver high school students deemed proficient in reading grew 6 percent in four years, from 51 percent to 57 percent of tenth graders by 2013. In math, proficiency grew 10 percentage points from a very low 15 percent of 10th graders proficient in 2009 in math to 25 percent proficient in 2013. Still only a quarter of students proficient in math is not a very high score. Statewide in Colorado, 34 percent of 10th graders were proficient in math last year. Writing proficiency among 10th graders in Denver grew from 32 percent to 36 percent in those years that Wilson was assistant superintendent in charge of high schools.
Denver Public Schools have been cited by the U.S. Department of Education and others for success in improving student outcomes. In the words of the U.S. Department of Education, a key innovation towards that end was starting a new teacher compensation system that raised teacher pay and built in a reward system for teachers who demonstrate effectiveness in raising student outcomes or are willing to take teaching positions in troubled, low-income or hard-to-staff schools.
The teachers’ union joined the school district in developing the plan, and Denver voters funded it with a $25 million tax measure.
“Denver has a legacy of improving student outcomes through collaboration between the Denver Public Schools (DPS) and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA). Their work dates back over a decade to a pilot project in reforming teacher compensation,” said the U.S. Department of Education. The plan in place “includes incentives to reward student growth, working in hard-to-serve schools and hard-to-staff assignments, acquiring and demonstrating skills and knowledge, and earning advanced degrees.”
In Oakland, the teachers union, the Oakland Education Association, and the district represented by the Board of Education, continue to be in contract talks that are marked by distrust and some animosity, based on teachers’ comments at board of education meetings. Aside from this year’s one year retroactive contract, the teachers have not won a negotiated pay raise in 10 years, that is beyond raises for experience and cost of living.
Oakland teachers earn less than the average pay for California teachers, particularly among experienced teachers. That pay system has largely backfired in that Oakland has a disproportionate number of new teachers who leave after a year or two, causing schools to deal with continual turnover as OaklandLocal has reported here, here and here in an Education Voices series.
Several teachers at this week’s board of education meeting said they hope that teachers will have a chance to interview the superintendent nominee before a final decision is made.