Antwan Wilson: Schoolhouse Rocky
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
When it comes to education, why are so many adults so childish?
By Melanie Ruiz and Sanjena Sathian
At a Tuesday evening board meeting in the Oakland Unified School District, you can barely see the stage for all the neon poster boards kids and parents alike are waving. They read Students, Not Suspects and Increase the Peace, No More Police and No More Sexist Dress Code.
People are out, and in uniform — there are so many squadrons that it’s difficult to track who is who and what each one wants. There are the special ed support staffers in purple and the Oakland Technical High School teachers in green and black. Some parents seem to have organized veritable armadas composed of middle- or high-schoolers, each group eager to speak their respective truths to power. At least three teachers shout, using anything but their inside voices, that they are ready to strike. And then there are the cops, four or five of them, pacing the perimeter of the gym. Guns in holsters.
A few feet above the war zone sits the school board, its members either smiling serenely or wearing practiced, stony-faced expressions. Each of the men and women on the stage knows just how much vitriol sits latent in the room. However, none of them face as much as Oakland Unified’s relatively new Superintendent Antwan Wilson. And him? He doesn’t even flinch. Wearing a gentle gray suit with a pastel blue shirt, he sits on the stage next to his board colleagues, all 6-foot-5 of him, fingers tented in front of his chin thoughtfully, occasionally sipping from a bottle of Coca-Cola.
But about an hour into the session, Wilson decides to spare a few words — some of his first all night — for the rabble-rousers. His is a steady voice, neither booming nor overpowering, but smooth. This comes after a mother of a disabled child heartbreakingly places her son at the mic as part of a conversation over special education cuts — the kid reads from what seems like a script, saying he is there to defend the rights of special ed students. When the heckling abates, Wilson finally says: “I will assume you have all misheard me, or misunderstood,” going on to assert that the budget is actually increasing for special ed. “The next time I hear this, I won’t assume you are mishearing. I will assume you are lying.”
The effect amounts to a parents-in-the-principal’s-office feeling. Except that parents (and angry teachers), unlike disciplined kids, don’t have to play nice. What’s he gonna do — suspend them? The angry buzzing isn’t quelled. Oakland Tech teacher Tania Kappner, a 21-year vet of the system, tells me, acerbically, “It’s simple. Antwan Wilson needs to go.”
This is what comes with the territory: Education at the district level is hyperlocal politics at its finest, most disgusting and, most sadly, childish. (“That was tame compared to what I’ve seen,” Wilson tells me later.) And in Oakland, a city fervently set on remaking itself, from principals to policing, this job is guaranteed to involve dodging spitballs. For Wilson, though, this is a breakthrough career move. At just 42, he is impressively young to have an entire district in his hands. But already he’s a veteran, having been a teacher and coach, a middle school principal and high school principal multiple times over and assistant superintendent for postsecondary readiness at Denver Public Schools. Making the jump to Oakland means tackling a big problem — or opportunity, depending on how you look at it.
That problem consists of some 48,000 students, 71 percent of whom were on free and reduced lunch programs in the 2014–2015 school year, according to the district, and nearly a third of whom were English language learners. Oakland flails on most indexes of school success: U.S. News & World Report, citing Standards of Learning exam results, marks it as below the state average. Wilson would seem equipped, as far as his resume goes, to handle these troubles. In the canon of Wilson Legend, one story is oft-repeated: that of Montbello High School in Denver, where Wilson was principal. Known as one of the worst schools in the state, it had seen a student stabbed in the cafeteria shortly before his arrival; 27 principals had passed through its doors in 30 years. Wilson saw graffitied hallways, vending machines encapsulated in cages. The bell, he recalls, was “just a suggestion.”
He held a “Come to Jesus” schoolwide assembly, where he doubtless knuckled down as in the board meeting, but that time he had the muscle to follow up. He created SWAT-team-esque groups to wander the halls and check up on people. Bell timings and the starting/ending of classes became stricter. It worked. When he began, 35 percent of students were accepted to junior and four-year-colleges. When he left three years later, Wilson says, that number was 95 percent. He was rewarded for those efforts with a six-year stint winding his way through the ranks of the Denver district, working on everything from college and career preparedness to AP courses. He instituted uniforms, not for aesthetic reasons but practical ones: “It’s hard to hide a gun when you don’t have sagging pants,” he says.
And one big thing: He actually dropped the (shh) “R-word” — race! — recalls his former chief of staff Kelli Pfaff. The fact that Wilson wanted to talk about suspension through the lens of its disproportionate effect on young Black men was “not without controversy and some pushback — especially among our more white, middle-class community,” Pfaff says.
It seemed inevitable that he’d be headed for a superintendent role, says Charles Robertson, a community leader in Denver who worked on after-school programs with Wilson. “We always thought he would move on,” Robertson says. “Other districts were going to come knocking.”
The city that knocked, though, is no easy beast. Oakland reflects national conversations over education — the Common Core debates, the legacy of No Child Left Behind; not to mention all the troubles of violence, Black males’ low academic achievement and dropout rates in urban high schools. It’s representative of much of the country, says Carlas McCauley, director of WestEd’s Center on School Turnaround, a San Francisco-based nonprofit working on education policy. He compares it to Los Angeles or Miami-Dade County, to name a few. If Wilson succeeds here, other school districts around the country may have a model — or a new prophet to turn to for guidance.
On the other hand, Oakland is terrifically unique. Northern California’s East Bay is home to schools with progressive names like Malcolm X Elementary School (in Berkeley) and Fred T. Korematsu Discovery Academy (in Oakland). Its citizens are famously strong protesters; it’s a social justice town. So it could be one of the best cities in America from which to birth progressive new education policy. It’s already tackled uniquely difficult programs, like switching from K–5 to K–8 schools — “not common,” says Conor Williams, an early education researcher at the New America Foundation — and pushing for bilingual education (more than one school was founded bilingually, thanks to parental agitation). But there’s no celebration here; instead, the leftist infighting continues. As Oakland’s Chief of Schools (and former colleague in Denver) Allen Smith puts it, “Oakland is an activist city, home of the Black Panthers. They can’t help it. Activism is in their blood.”
Away from the board meeting, though, Wilson is more popular. A week before that minefield meeting, on a ride over to Greenleaf Elementary School, Wilson is perfectly aware that he might be walking into a theatrical production of scholastic success. There’s sure to be pomp and circumstance: After all, this is the new boss’s first visit to the school, whose principal will want to make a good impression. He has his bullshit-detector on. You wouldn’t guess there was a hard-ass lurking underneath, looking at him. He is, as Smith tells me, “an extreme introvert.” He’s soft-spoken and a dandy dresser: This morning, as he visits two schools as part of his biweekly site visits, Wilson is decked out in a blue-and-white pin-striped shirt, a dapper suit, shiny Daddy Warbucks shoes and a tweedy fedora.
He shakes hands with the first principal we meet, Greenleaf’s Melanie Schoeppe, an enthusiastic blond woman two years into the gig, who’s eager to praise everyone from her office staff to the room full of Latina mothers who’ve assembled to testify to Greenleaf’s magnificence. He absorbs her energy for a short while and then moves into health-inspector mode. We visit the classrooms. They look pretty normal to me: cute kids, backpacks, Shel Silverstein, Ramona Quimby, misspelled essays on the reproductive systems of plants written on wide-ruled notebook paper.
I confer with him in the hallway after we step into a few classrooms. What is he seeing that I’m not? He’s pleased. He hasn’t noticed kids lingering in the halls; the teachers had the students, even the first-graders, buddy up and have conversations with one another to discuss the material. “The real sign of success is whether or not the students can ask each other for help,” he tells me. One teacher, holding up flashcards with short words for the class to read aloud in unison, calls on a small girl in a headscarf to ask her what the vowel “A” sounds like. The girl turns bright red. “Do you want to phone a friend?” the teacher asks. She does. Wilson is pleased at this: The teacher knew the kid wasn’t paying attention, called on her to get her engaged and then kindly let her off the hook.
This should be standard stuff for most who went to good schools, but something as minute as that is what Wilson looks for. He interviews the teachers, staff, even the kids — at the next school, La Escuelita, one child tells him that her class voted against using the well-regarded online math tutoring program Khan Academy. “What?” he asks, visibly miffed. “That’s like voting to not get smarter.” I figure the school will be hearing about that. He at least makes the kiddo — who wants to go to Berkeley one day — promise to try it herself after school.
Wilson has a no-excuses sort of vibe, none of the touchy-feely “as long as everyone’s learning” thing. It goes back to his mom, Linda Wilson, a single parent plagued by money troubles who had her family fleeing between states: Kansas, Nebraska. One day in third grade he arrived at home to find the family’s bags packed, no warning. But, he says, his mother never once failed to remind him that he was going to college. No questions asked. That didn’t mean high school was easy. In Nebraska, there was the race thing. “Being African-American and good at school …” he trails off — not exactly celebrated. He was a basketball player, on track to play in college, but his coaches often pegged him as a bad-attitude kid; he says, yeah, “I was angry,” but it was over stuff like the coaches calling him “Tony,” figuring his name was “Anthony,” as though that was the only name they could understand. When he did go to college at Nebraska Wesleyan University, it was on an academic scholarship, rather than the athletic scholarships he was offered — this he’s particularly proud of.
Whether recounting his years of schooling or talking of the shit he takes from parents, he conveys an oil-off-a-duck’s-back vibe. He says the community has called him “every name you can think of,” has asserted he’s not Black enough — in part after he mentioned the C-word (charter schools) a few months ago — and has even gotten up in his face. It’s gotten personal, with folks calling him greedy for accepting his $280,000 annual salary. He says he’s received a verbal threat to his life. One might fairly wonder if a small part of him relishes the fight. “I was a popular teacher,” he says of the time before he switched to the principal role. “But when I took the principal job, I was OK with not being the most popular guy around.”
Back at the board meeting, things had begun with some cheesy but sweet congratulations for various schools’ accomplishments — tech, beloved teachers, etc. The microphones weren’t working. The presenters to the board stood in front of the crowd, speaking up at the stage. The board looked benevolently down upon the scene. In the back, a substitute special ed teacher grew infuriated. “No one can hear you!” he yelled. “I mean, is this a public meeting?”
Ships passing in the night, eh? It’s ironic, given that the praise Wilson receives (albeit from allies — Robertson, Smith) is for his community engagement during his time in Denver. Oakland Unified is pursuing a number of savvy, private-sector (kind of a bad word in Oakland) partnerships here too, as with Kaiser Permanente (the health care behemoth based in Oakland) and Intel, to boost STEM programs. “He’s a systems-level thinker,” Smith tells me. Which means he has a talent for that high-level, executive-skill type stuff. On the other hand, Wilson admits to not always listening to the lower-down folks; he reflects that his biggest mistake pre-Oakland was not spending enough time asking teachers for their thoughts before diving in.
At the site visits, though, the ostensible point is to listen. In one kindergarten classroom, where the carpets and teachers alike smell of slightly stale Play-Doh, Wilson surveys the room. He spies a single, shy-looking Black boy in the far corner, sitting on a couch and reading with immense concentration. He makes his way over there. They sit together and page through the book with its thick cardboard pages and large, bubbly lettering. Wilson looks more like a father — he is, of three: 7-year-old twins and a 12-year-old — than the big, bad inspector. The boy reads aloud. Wilson listens.
Video by Melanie Ruiz
- Melanie Ruiz, Melanie Ruiz is a mathematician turned yoga teacher turned documentarian. She grew up in Denver and survived four winters in Madison, Wisconsin, before moving to San Francisco. She's a big fan of animals, and her favorite stories are profiles and those with a scientific bent. Follow Melanie Ruiz on TwitterContact Melanie Ruiz|
- Sanjena Sathian, Asia Editor Follow Sanjena Sathian on TwitterContact Sanjena Sathian