The first day on the job, Oakland Unified’s new superintendent Antwan Wilson said OUSD is not going to ignore problems sometimes considered “too hard” for school districts to overcome, such as the toll that deep poverty and trauma take on students’ ability to achieve.
Instead, it is going to tackle issues head on that have caused some students and some schools to falter, and “ensure every child is getting an excellent education.”
But the district is also going to prioritize tasks and focus on achieving them fast, rather than pursue dozens of initiatives with middling commitment.
“We must make haste,” Wilson told an assembly of parents, administrators, press and teachers greeting him on day one Tuesday.
“Children are only in third grade once, they are only in middle school once,” he said. Delay can ruin lives.
While he said his specific first 100 days plan is still developing, he cited these priorities:
A school district is beholden on preparing students for the option to go on to college, even if they choose not to, Wilson said.
“They need to be able to read deeply, collaborate and problem solve,” he said of the education OUSD or any school district must provide.
Wilson takes over the helm of s district of 37,000 district students and 10,000 charter students, in a city where street violence has cut life short for some young people and poverty has often trumped opportunity for kids.
But Wilson knew poverty well as a kid.
Growing up with his single teenage mother in Wichita, Kansas, he was often hungry at night and the apartment was cold. “But my mother still expected me to write that paper and my teachers expected me to finish the math homework.”
Poverty cannot be seen as a reason to have “soft expectations” of students, he said.
The 42-year-old father comes to Oakland from Denver Public Schools system where he was assistant superintendent in charge of secondary schools and student college and career readiness. While in Denver, he earned a national reputation for lifting graduation rates by 22 percent over six years and improving rigor in high schools, leading more kids to attend college after graduation. He is known also turning around a very troubled high school, Montebello High School, to produce almost all college going students. The Denver and Oakland school districts have similar demographics around poverty and English language learners, with three-quarters of the student population in each qualifying for free or reduced lunch.
Oakland school board members said Wilson’s success in turning around high schools in Denver was a key quality. (For an analysis of the challenges Wilson faces in Oakland click HERE.)
In Oakland, Wilson takes the helm of a district that is at the forefront of education reform and recognized nationally for successes but also the locus of dismal failure.
Oakland is a school system with such excellent elementary schools in Peralta, Chabot, Crocker Highlands, Cleveland, Lincoln, Hillcrest, and others that parents anywhere would sell their right arms to enroll their kids in them.
But it’s a city where an 8-year-old little girl lies paralyzed in a hospital bed because a bullet intended for a 47-year-old gang member somehow lodged in her instead.
It is a school district with a science program at Oakland Technical High School and a music program at Skyline High School that are the envy of the state and from which students launch into Ivy league institutions. It’s also a place where pimps hover outside some high school buildings and follow 16 year old girls home and trap them in desperate life styles.
OUSD is a school district that produced California’s teacher of the year last year as well as teachers who have thrown chairs at kids or simply not shown up to teach.
It’s an innovative district with Linked Learning internships, with Restorative Justice and emotional learning programs and the nation’s first African American Male Achievement initiative. And it’s a district that somehow allows a third of its schools to fail to produce proficiency in math and English in a majority of their students.
It is a school district where some kids are winning robotic and debate championships and some kids finish 8th grade not knowing how to read.
It’s a school district with declining enrollment in a city receiving a huge influx of 20-something-year-olds who haven’t yet thought about having kids, much less where those kids would go to school.
This is the district into which Antwan Wilson arrives to make his mark.