The Oakland Unified School District has begun the school year with a new superintendent, Antwan Wilson, at the helm. The 46,000-student district is the 14th-largest in the state. Unlike the district’s former superintendents in recent years, he comes to Oakland without any prior experience in California public education.
Wilson, 42, comes to the district after nine years in the Denver public schools, most recently as assistant superintendent for postsecondary readiness. He succeeds former superintendent Tony Smith, who resigned unexpectedly at the end of the 2012-13 school year. During the transition to a permanent superintendent, the district had been led by interim superintendent Gary Yee. Wilson sat down with EdSource’s Louis Freedberg and John Fensterwald for a wide-ranging discussion on why he came to Oakland, his views on the Common Core, and his goals for the district.
His remarks provide insights into how a superintendent in an urban district at the outset of his term of office is approaching some of the challenges that he will face.
What made you accept the position of superintendent in Oakland?
Oakland is a school district that is full of opportunity, and that got me excited. And the opportunities are to make a difference in the lives of young people, many of whom come from diverse backgrounds, many of whom share similar experiences to those that I had as a child, and also just the history in Oakland. The diversity, the activism, the number of individuals who care about social justice issues — those were all things that attracted me to Oakland, and some of the issues that are here in Oakland to improve education are issues that resonate with me from my work in other places, most recently Denver. And it would have taken a tremendous community in order for me to leave Denver because I love it, and I love Colorado, and Oakland provided those opportunities. So I am excited to be here.
EdSource: Where do you come down in the debate about how much schools can do to improve academic performance, and how much has to do with the environment that kids grow up in, their economic background, or the traumas they might experience in their homes and in their neighborhoods?
I normally don’t debate that issue. I believe that schools have a tremendous responsibility to ensure that our young people have opportunities in their lives, and I believe schools can have a tremendous impact on the opportunities and prospects that students have for their lives. My own personal life is an example of that. I was a young student born to a single mother in poor neighborhoods, where we moved all the time.
Where was that?
In Wichita, Kansas. There I experienced and saw the violence, the drugs, the gangs. One of the things that led to me having an opportunity to do more is that my mother really pushed and helped me get a great education. And getting a great education led to me being here with you now. So I know that education has a tremendous role to play. In playing that role it has to be one where adults are really serious about saying that every child will get a great education and show empathy for the experiences that young people are faced with, help families think through ways in which young people can get the support they need. If they’re hungry, we’ve got to feed them. If they are dealing with abuse, we’ve got to connect them with people and resources to help remove them from those situations and put them on a trajectory so that they can rise above or overcome those situations.
But we must educate them. As a society we need to believe in the power of education because if not, then what? We can’t say, “Well, we’re going to wait till there’s no more poverty, no more violence, there are no more drugs,” all things that I saw on a regular basis as a young person growing up, and then say “After there’s no more of that, we’ll educate them.” We have to educate them, and that’s what’s going to put them in a position to have more success, but recognizing that’s not the only thing. The other social systems in the society have to work as well. But education is key.
“I believe that schools have a tremendous responsibility to ensure that our young people have opportunities in their lives, and I believe schools can have a tremendous impact on the opportunities and prospects that students have for their lives.”
But where do you come down on issues like having school-based health centers and mental health and other wrap-around services that schools can use to help with students with discipline problems and so on?
Having the additional supports are huge to positioning schools to be successful. So the community schools effort in Oakland is in large part about providing young people with those wrap-around services. Why? Because families are going to come to the school. And if they can get what they need, whether it be accessing social services or getting support from community-based organizations in the same location as the school, then you’re able to be more timely, more responsive, and at the same time change associations that some may have with the school which may not have been positive when they were students themselves.
Do you see the Common Core as a really significant reform? Or is the jury still out?
I see the Common Core as a significant piece of the puzzle. It is just a piece of the puzzle. But it’s a significant piece because what it is really talking about is putting all young people on the trajectory to be college and career-ready, and to then train the adults to implement the type of pedagogical practices that would be supportive or conducive to young people being on that trajectory, that college and career trajectory. So it’s important. It’s about raising standards.
But in and of itself, the Common Core isn’t going to be enough. You have to now put in the educational infrastructure. You have to align that with social-emotional supports. You’ve got to align that with support for school leadership and teachers on the ground. So all of that has to be aligned together. But if those things are absent the Common Core will be insufficient.
Is is your sense that teachers in Oakland are prepared to implement the Common Core?
I am in a position where I am learning what we have already done. But a key part of our effort will be around supporting our teachers. So I can commit to that now. We are contemplating ways in which we can provide more support to our teachers – not looking at what was done in any way as deficient, but just saying that the work around the Common Core is so important to raising college readiness and promoting academic rigor that we need to find ways in which to partner with our teachers to ensure that they have all the resources they need. We’ll take a good first step in terms of immediately coming in and supporting that work this year. Then in subsequent years a major component of our work will be just to get better at it.
But do you have a sense that teachers may not have gotten a good grounding in Oakland in the Common Core, compared to say in Denver where you were previously?
I don’t have a concern that Oakland is somehow behind the rest of the country. I do believe, though, that we in general need to do a lot more to support our teachers everywhere around the issues of the Common Core, and I would suspect that Oakland is typical of most places. I think there have been a few places that really got out front and really went deep in this work, and I think that there’s a lot more that we can do. I hear from educators who are asking for more support, asking for more resources, asking for time in which to implement the standards. It’s appropriate that we contemplate ways to do that because I don’t hear those educators saying, “No, we shouldn’t raise expectations.” I don’t hear those educators saying, “No, we don’t want support.” So if they’re telling me, and us nationally, that they need more support, then I think that we have to figure out ways to do so. That’s my interest here in Oakland – to find ways to make sure our teachers are getting the help they need.
Preparing students for college and careers is obviously a huge issue here in Oakland. Do you think it is an attainable goal?
I do believe that having expectations around college and career readiness is an appropriate goal, but I also think it’s important that we are really clear when we talk about what we mean regarding college and careers. Some folks will talk about four-year institutions, some people will talk about certificated programs. I paint college with a very broad brush. Whether it’s a one-year certificated program, a two-year associate degree, a four-year bachelor’s degree or an advanced degree, whether they get it through military service or whether they get it through their work with their employer, I think college and career readiness is an appropriate goal.
In order for young people to have a choice, a real choice, they have to have been prepared for success in a four-year institution. They may then decide, “No, I’m not really interested in pursuing a bachelor’s degree. I’m much more interested in this current technical education pathway, or this certification right now because that’s what’s more interesting to me in terms of my career interests or initial interests,” which are likely to change anyway later in their lives.
“That’s my interest here in Oakland – to find ways to make sure our teachers are getting the help they need.”
But to set the goal less than that, to say that we’re merely wanting to have you be proficient (on standardized tests), which in many cases has been a challenge for some students, or to say we just want you to get through high school, that sets up many young people to be behind from the beginning. In order to change their life prospects, in order to put themselves on a trajectory for upward mobility, they’re going to need education beyond high school in order to have those opportunities. We also know employers are expecting young people to come in with some skills that are conducive to them being successful on the job. So if we are only focusing on minimum expectations, then young people are going to be frustrated because they’re going to feel like “I did everything I was supposed to do, and yet now that I want to pursue this opportunity I can’t.”
Do you think schools are prepared to help kids reach the goal of being ready for college and careers, or is this going to take a major mind shift, as well as more resources to get there?
In order to get there we need the state as well as national leadership to come together and say, “We’re going to rethink how we do education.” We need industry to come in and also play a major role in investing (in preparing students for college and careers). Young people need access to internships. They need to see examples of success. And we need a confluence of energy of getting individuals to focus on what’s needed in these urban areas to reshape education.
The model of how we think about the school years as made up of 180-some days, six-and-a-half hours a day, and then the way you experience your junior and senior year in high school was appropriate at one time, when our outcomes, our hopes were different, and it was just about getting a job. If you didn’t choose to go on to college there were some opportunities for you. When we’re talking about college and career readiness and trying to meet a minimum standard and to walk out of high school prepared to be either skilled in needed labor skills or pursuing a career, or being an entrepreneur, we have to rethink that educational model, even what the junior and senior year looks like. Are you sitting in a classroom, a traditional classroom, waiting on a teacher to give you information? If so, why would that be the model when access to information is sitting on your hip if you’re carrying a phone or in your purse? The information is there. What we’ve really got to begin to contemplate is what students are doing with information, and what are they being prepared to do with it.
The Board Of Education has voted to place a parcel tax on the November ballot to fund programs that link the high school curriculum to career pathways. Is that something you think you can sell to voters?
I’m hoping that there’s support for it. I mean, I can’t advocate one way or the other from my position (as superintendent). What I can say is what that would mean for young people. It would mean that we would be able to scale up pathways that lead to being college- and career-ready. We would be able to provide more training and support for our teachers. We would be able to pursue some real authentic partnerships with business, with industry, with the city. I’m hoping that most Oakland voters see that that would be a good thing for Oakland. What we do know is that it doesn’t work for the city if large numbers of high school students are not graduating or, if they are graduating, that they can’t turn their high school diploma into something that’s better for their lives. I’m hoping that people can see that connection.
Do you see the large numbers of kids going to charter schools as a problem for Oakland given that that has a great effect on your core budget?
I like to reframe the question. My emphasis is much more on quality schools. And I think all young people need to attend a quality school. If we put the emphasis on that, whether it’s a district-run public school or a charter public school, the narrative would be the same. When I hear that there are too many of one type of school (charter schools) what you can get me to agree upon is there aren’t enough quality schools for the young people who are in Oakland. I am serious about leading an effort to ensure that young people have access to more quality schools. I’d love to see us as a state and as a district focus on what we do to scale up more quality and what do we do to quickly address inequality (among schools).
So you wouldn’t be opposed to more charter schools in Oakland?
I would like to see families in Oakland choose to not have to spend money to send their kids to (private) schools because they think it’s either not safe or they believe their kids won’t get a great education (in public schools). If we can solve those issues, so that (parents believe) their kids will get a great education and their kids will be safe, then there are more than enough students in Oakland for us to have district-run schools and for there to be charter schools as well.
Do you look forward to being part of the CORE districts partnership that received a waiver from No Child Left Behind provisions? Is there an advantage to Oakland to staying in that partnership?
I am still learning about the CORE waiver and the CORE districts. I will say that I am absolutely excited to partner with the other CORE districts. In a state as large as California it’s unreasonable to believe that reform can be controlled from only one perspective and spread across all districts. So allowing some districts to be innovative is important. It is appropriate to be able to interject some innovation and autonomy into the system.