Just minutes before Antwan Wilson stepped into the vast atrium at Roosevelt Senior High School on March 16 to address a Ward 4 community on his vision for the District’s public schools, the new chancellor appeared relaxed and ready to go with the flow.
The only giveaway to the Oakland, California, transplant’s palpable presence as a D.C. newcomer probably hinged on his response to remnant sightings of the city’s recent snowstorm, while making his way over to the newly renovated school.
“I’m excited to be in D.C. This is an amazing place, an amazing city with a lot of pride and a great deal of talent, and we have awesome students,” Wilson, 44, said during an interview prior to the start of the second of eight community meetings he’s scheduled to get a better handle on the city, its schools and residents.
“I was in Oakland just under three years, where I was school superintendent, and I moved there directly from Denver,” said the affable Witchita, Kansas, native, who lived there until about third grade. “That’s when my mother moved my brothers and me to a city where we would graduate high school, particularly after having seen none of our male relatives finished school.”
The family settled in Lincoln, Nebraska, where “most of the students I went to school with expected to graduate and go to college,” said Wilson, who served six years in Denver as an assistant superintendent and three years there as a school principal.
Wilson replaces Kaya Henderson, who resigned in October. He accepted the DCPS chancellor’s post in February, having long noted similarities in the Oakland and D.C. systems. Oakland, for instance, enrolls some 49,000 students, comparable to DCPS’s roughly 47,000 students.
“They’re about the same. There’s a large charter school sector and a large public school sector both in Oakland and D.C,” Wilson said.
Recalling his tenure as Oakland’s school chief, Wilson said much of the work he encountered focused on developing a new strategic plan, getting the school system out of debt, and reestablishing its credit rating.
“Because there was no credit rating when I arrived there in 2014, our ability to borrow funds was problematic. We were addressing 2008 financials,” Wilson said with a sigh “We [gradually] put in academic programs, developed a special education curriculum and built on the African-American male achievement initiative that was already in place by doubling its funding. We also began an initiative focused on Latino boys and African-American girls, as well as Asian/Pacific Islander students.”
Wilson said part of his short-term focus for DCPS involves hearing from as many parents, students, city leaders and other community stakeholders as possible regarding past progress. He also wants to hear their ideas for moving the school system forward over the next five years, and while he’s already visited about 50 schools, he plans on visiting the remaining buildings by the end of the school year.
Wilson, whose wife and children remain in Oakland until the end of the school term, stressed retaining as many of the “talented people” the system already has in place, crucial to accomplishing DCPS goals set for the next five years. To that end, he noted an important part of that engagement involves updating DCPS’ strategic plan, which he expects to launch next fall.
Meanwhile, Wilson said his administration will be taking advantage of opportunities that build upon the progress of his predecessors.
“That includes working harder to accelerate student achievement,” he said. “Some of that involves investing additional resources, time and staff, and determining which obstacles we need to remove.”
Wilson also expressed diligence establishing and retaining a good relationship with the Washington Teachers’ Union.
“I’ve had several productive conversations with [WTU] President Elizabeth Davis and I feel like we’re both interested in making DCPS the best school district in the country, a great place for getting great teachers to teach and to stay, and great place for students to learn,” he said. “The teacher contract negotiations have been going on for some time, and I think we’ll soon get to a place where we’ll have a deal – it’s just that we’re just working through the process to get there and making it happen.”
While the Every Student Succeeds Act doesn’t come directly under Wilson’s purview, he’s confident D.C.’s submission in alignment with the federally-issued accountability mandate — which petitions school districts across the country to craft their individual drafts for implementation by early April or September — measures up.
“There have been some modifications, and yet I feel like [Hanseul Kang, D.C. state superintendent for education] has been very responsive to feedback throughout the process,” Wilson said. “She’s trying to balance what she’s required to do by law, and I’m in support of moving forth with the plan, knowing we’re going to need conversations around how to improve it.”
Substitute teacher Harold Hunter said he’s impressed with the new chancellor and applauds any plans Wilson has for keeping DCPS on an upward spiral.
“Under [Wilson’s] guidance, I’d especially like to see the District’s public schools as a diversified spectrum where special-needs students can connect and bridge the gap to go on to vocational schools and colleges,” said Hunter, also a longtime Ward 4 community activist.
Ward 4 resident Ashley Bruns agreed, adding she looks forward to her 3-year-old child having a positive educational experience in DCPS.
“I think he’ll be good for the schools,” said Bruns, who attended the Roosevelt forum out of concern with Wilson’s action plan for the stabilization D.C.’s public education system.