After an emotional discussion, the Oakland School Board voted unanimously Wednesday to hire Antwan Wilson — an assistant superintendent from Denver known for turning around high schools and instilling in students an interest in academics and college — as Oakland’s next superintendent.
Wilson will take the job leading Oakland Unified School District, a massive organization of 86 schools, 37,000 students (plus 10,000 charter students) and thousands of employees. He will start July 1 with a yearly salary of $280,000 plus generous benefits that include six months of housing expenses as he moves his family to Oakland from Denver.
Telling the public why they chose this candidate among the 20 applicants that Oakland’s nationwide search for superintendent attracted, the Board cited Wilson’s experience working with struggling student populations, a leadership style that respects the ideas of teachers, students, parents and residents in decision-making, and success at raising graduation rates and college enrollment among his Denver students.
They spoke about the needs in Oakland, a district where the outcomes for boys who are African-American and Latino are statistically dismal, and the subject of a civil rights resolution. Oakland has improved graduation rates for all students to 62.7 percent as of last June, and particularly for African-American students, whose graduation rate rose 4 percent to 57 percent in one year, and Latinos, whose graduation rate now stands at 59 percent, up seven points in a year, according to state Education Department reports. But that still means more than 40 percent of students of color in Oakland are not graduating high school in four years. Even fewer are graduating with the courses needed to attend college.
“There is a deep sense of urgency in his character. We have a deep sense of urgency in improving outcomes for our students and we are stuck there right now,” said board member James Harris, who represents East Oakland. “I feel like we have the weight of the City on us.”
Like in Oakland, three-quarters of the students in Denver Public Schools are poor as measured in eligibility for the federal free or reduced lunch program, and more than a third are English-language learners. Huge numbers of kids were disenfranchised from school and dropping out, but Wilson is credited with changing the trajectory in Denver. While he was Assistant Superintendent in Charge of Secondary Education, the four-year graduation rate in Denver Public Schools rose 12 percent in three years to 58.8 percent in 2012.
“In Denver, the situation exactly mirrors what we have here with African-American males. In Denver it is with Latinos dropping out,” said Oakland board member Roseann Torres. She said the process of choosing and interviewing candidates drove home “the amount of work that’s to be done here,” and the importance of to get behind the new person and be supportive.”
David Kakishiba, president of Oakland’s school board, cited three reasons for choosing Wilson.
“First, I was looking for somebody who had a deep appreciation for and practice of working with local school leaders (principals), teachers, students, parents and residents in the neighborhoods to move an entire school’s trajectory,” he said.
“Second, as you know, the priority of this board right now is high schools because where the high schools go is where the direction of this city goes. We wanted someone who could lead the high schools in a (positive) direction.”
Third, Kakishiba said, was Wilson’s management track record in handling the day to day business challenges of running a school district. “Mr. Wilson’s thoughtful and day-to-day management in Denver,” was impressive, he said. “He clearly seems to be at the center of the leadership core that is moving the Denver Public Schools.”
Oakland has been pursuing a strategic plan to prepare all students to be “college- and career-ready” and to remake its schools into full-service community schools that can help students with health and safety needs in addition to academic needs. It has opened health clinics at 15 schools in its poorest neighborhoods, and is now serving about three meals a day at two dozen schools.
“What really struck me about Mr. Wilson, is first, he started as a teacher; he understands what it is to be an educator at every level. Secondly, he chose Oakland, he walked into the interview knowing our strategic plan. He wants to do that work. He was not applying anywhere else,” said board member Jody London. Wilson was a teacher and principal before taking on district supervisory roles.
Wilson intends to enroll his three children in Oakland Unified School District, they said.
The newly-elected superintendent was not at the meeting, but in a statement sent to reporters through OUSD, Wilson said he was honored to be chosen and excited about what lies ahead. “I’ve dedicated my life to supporting the growth and development of children, so the opportunity to expand this work in a dynamic environment like Oakland is tremendously exciting. The energy in the city is palpable and I can’t wait to come together with the community and harness that enthusiasm to serve children, improve academic achievement, and produce better life outcomes for Oakland students.”
Several teachers, representatives from the Oakland Education Association teachers’ union and Oakland residents asked why the Board didn’t open the superintendent interview process to the public, as it did six years ago. Kakishiba reminded those present that the Board had voted that it would keep applicants’ names confidential in the search, after surveying community members about what kind of person they wanted to have as the next superintendent. About 100 parents, teachers, students and administrators in Oakland were interviewed about what they hoped for in a candidate before the search began, he said. Others said it had to be that way.
“We had clear indications from many applicants that, if they were going to be asked to go through a public process, they would withdraw their names,” London said, explaining that those candidates didn’t want to jeopardize their current jobs.
“Part of why the seven of us sit here is because this is a representative democracy. I was doing this on behalf of the 56,000 people in my district. “
Students from high school leadership groups, however, were allowed to interview Mr. Wilson in a closed-door session between the candidate and the students.
Among Oakland’s seven traditional high schools, three have been singled out by the district as in need of immediate intervention because of teacher turnover, poor student performance and kids dropping out.
Problems that lead eventually to dropping out typically show up early, many educators say. A key determinant is third-grade reading levels. If kids can’t read by third grade, they start falling behind as the curriculum moves forward, in fourth grade and beyond, to rely on reading as the way to learn other material, from science to history to literature. Absenteeism and discipline policies that favor suspension are also cited for leading kids to drop out.
Oscar Wright, an Oakland resident who has been an advocate for students through the years, chastised the Board for not improving reading instruction for young black children, of which about one-third are below grade-level reading at third grade.