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:

  • “Investing in people,” which he elaborated “make sure teachers and principals have access to training and to worthwhile feedback” as well as, presumably, pay.
  • Creating a culture around student success. “We realize we have to invest in being a values-based organization and (convene) around a consistent set of values.”
  • “Prioritize professional learning”
  •  Overarching all, is a goal to increase graduation and prepare students for successful lives in college or careers.

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.

About The Author

Barbara Grady is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can reach her at

6 Responses

  1. Oakie

    I just read Chip Johnson’s piece on Mr. Wilson. Details regarding his history in Denver appear significantly different than what I see here.

    Specifically, according to Chip’s reading of his history, Mr. Wilson spent 3 years managing a high school, Montebello, and did demonstrate a dramatic improvement (specifically the admittance rate for 2 and 4 year colleges went form 35% to 95%). Kudos for that, absolutely.

    Then he went to the district office, and within 2 years the performance at Montebello degraded (although the specifics of how bad it deteriorated is not stated).

    It was bad enough that the district made a decision to basically shut the school down for poor performance and reconstitute it as 3 smaller schools. Mr. Wilson was responsible for navigating the political opposition to the closure. The school closed last month.

    So it’s not exactly clear to me what skill set possessed by Mr. Wilson made him the successful candidate for this job. His one success was at the school level, and as soon as he left to be at the district office the improvements vanished. So why hire him for a district job if his best success is at the school level?

    Is it because he demonstrated his ability to close schools in spite of parent opposition?

    Is Oakland simply incapable of critical thinking? All I can see is puffery, glad handing and boosterism that would have warmed the heart of Babbitt and his ilk, and ultimately it will set us up for continued failure. More lost years, more money down the tubes and more lost lives. What a tragedy. We spend half a billion dollars a year for this?

  2. livegreen

    Why are Comments & re-Tweets linked together? It makes it very hard to see comments, much less have a discussion…

    Can’t they be separated?

  3. Len Raphael

    Fairly common that a K-12 school’s improvement is very directly tied to how good a principal it has. Much harder to institutionalize the processess and procedures and attitudes that produce great schools.

    Now that he’s hired with a contract, we have to hope that Mr Wilson learned from his failure to do that Montebello High School.

  4. Oakie

    Yes, we can hope. We’ve been doing that each time there’s some new face running the schools since Marcus Foster was assassinated. And it’s been the same each time: downhill.

    And the beat goes on. Insanity, anyone? I think it’s mass delusion, myself. And a complete vacuum of critical thinking.

    And then we get to decide in November whether to give them yet another dollop of parcel tax revenue to squander. While they do nothing about spending in excess of $100,000 for a gardener-more than they pay for teachers.

  5. Jim Mordecai

    Oakie referenced the percentage improvement rate of the students going to college when Antwan Wilson was principal of Colorado’s Montbello High School 2006, 2007, 2008.

    Colorado also has a system whereby each school is rated across the state according to a score on its standardized test. When Montbello was closed for poor test scores after 2013 it was rated like in the 94th percentile. At no time during Mr. Wilson’s three years as principal at Montbello did his school’s students score on the State’s standardized test have a score below the 90th percentile of the State’s worse schools. Data doesn’t tell the whole story, and Montbello may had been transformed when Mr. Wilson was its principal from the worse performing schools in the State, but the data does imply that the transformation story of Montbello under principal Wilson was a change in direction that was not statistically dramatic or sustained.

    We can play pick your Wilson statistic: 1) college acceptance rate for 2-year and 4-year colleges from 35% to 95% or 2) failure to move the school out of the bottom 10% worse performing schools in the State of Colorado.

    Mr. Wilson as Oakland Superintendent may have secret sauce for turning around Oakland High Schools. Time will tell. But, what concerns me is he is a Broad Foundation trained individual. After the state take-over and the dust cleared the string of three trained Broad Foundation State Administrators left the District in worse financial shape than when the turnover began. Time will also tell whether or not continuing the Broad reform agenda of will have a different outcome than when the State administrators under the state take-over had dictatorship power of making a motion, seconding their motion and then passing their motion.

  6. Oakie

    I’m fascinated by Jim’s framing the suitability of a candidate for OUSD Superintendent based on whether they went to a particular seminar or training session. It appears, from this framework, that people apparently catch couties if they attend anything associated with the Broad Foundation-and thus are unqualified (without exception) for the job. One must wonder how effective that organization must be to entirely replace all morality and sensibility of their attendees with a few hours in front of some boring Powerpoint slides. Kind of reminds me of the scene in Sleeper where there is an assembly line of head replacements for the robots. I’m sure there are BF hating people who view those seminars as very similar.

    There was a PBS News Hour segment on charters in which Randi Weingarter makes some pretty outrageous (and unsubstantiated) stories of teachers being treated horribly by principals, and thus requiring the kind of job protections that in fact make it virtually impossible to fire an incompetent teacher (remember: OUSD has never fired a single teacher for incompetence, as if there aren’t any). Watch for yourself, but at least use your critical thinking to evaluate:

    What a small worldview they have. Can you imagine wanting to work in a school where the central point of authority, the principal behaves this badly? Can you imagine being a parent and choosing, voluntarily, to send your own child to a school run by a principal like this? Obviously, if the stories she tells are true, there is a solution: get rid of a bad principal. But if you observe Randi’s logic, that never comes up. Instead, we must put in place high obstacles to ensure that this bad principal’s hands are ties so they can’t do these awful things to the teachers under their control. What an upside down world they want us all to live in.

    In both cases, the BF hating crowd, and the union president here, they have such a small world view of Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad.

    Last night, again on PBS News Hour, they did a story about the Houston school district and their innovative use of charter schools to improve all their schools.

    Early in the segment they interview the Houston School Superintendent. He says that he views (the effective) charters as sources of innovation from which the others can learn from and adopt.

    Can you imagine? Can anyone suggest any person in OUSD management from the superintendent down, or school board member who has said something like this? In spite of the fact the most highly performing schools in OUSD are exclusively charters (AIM, KIPP).

    How refreshing to see this kind of common sense from the leader of a school district. And yet I have not heard that from Mr. Wilson. And one wonders why the selection process did not find someone comparable to what Houston has.

    Can you imagine? TEXAS is more interested in innovation and reform than California schools, and most importantly OUSD? What has happened to the world?


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