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New Oakland Schools Superintendent Promises Action

| July 3, 2014
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Barbara Grady, Oakland Local

oaklandlocallogoThe 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 will “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 a specific plan for his first 100 days is still developing, he cited these priorities:

  • ”Investing in people,” which he elaborated upon: “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 must prepare 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 a 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,” he said.

Poverty cannot be seen as a reason to have “soft expectations” of students, he said.

The 42-year-old father comes to Oakland from the 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. It is a district with poverty and language barriers much like Oakland’s. Denver and Oakland have similar percentages of low-income students (three-quarters qualify for free or reduced lunch) and English learners. He is also known for turning around a very troubled high school, Montebello High School, to produce almost all college-going students.

Oakland school board members said Wilson’s success in turning around high schools in Denver was a key quality.

He takes the helm of a district that is both at the forefront of education reform and recognized nationally for successes and the locus of dismal failure.

It is a school system with such excellent elementary schools — in Peralta, Chabot, Highland, Cleveland, Lincoln and others — that parents anywhere would sell their right arms to enroll their kids in them.

It’s a city where an 8-year-old 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 are launched 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 lifestyles.

It’s 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.

OUSD is 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 eighth grade not knowing how to read.

It’s a school district with declining enrollment in a city receiving a huge influx of 20-somethings 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.

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