On July 1, 2014, Antwan Wilson became the superintendent of Oakland Unified School District—a district that was in state receivership from 2003-2010 and has been plagued, like so many urban districts, by leadership churn. He brought with him a stellar track record of professional success and a deep, personal passion to “fuel a strong drive to succeed” in the students he serves.
You’re a notorious early-riser. Is coffee part of the morning routine? Tea?
I wake up at 3 a.m., but it usually does not include a coffee habit. Most mornings you’ll find me at the gym, in meditation and prayer, and preparing for my day.
What part of the work gets you the most fired up each morning?
I am very passionate about the work that I feel fortunate to do everyday because it has a direct impact on preparing all students—no matter their background—to become productive world citizens. I look forward to Tuesdays because I spend all of my day interacting with students in schools and really getting a sense of the climate and culture. Time spent listening to and learning from students is what fires me up and fuels me to ensure they have what they need to reach their full potential.
I also get fired up about putting in systems that makes pursuing college and career a reality for all children.
Talk about how your background and education shape your vision for public education, especially around choice and equity.
My background provides my drive. Growing up where moving to a new school every year was a reality helps you understand the importance of education. Living in poverty and experiencing most of the worst things that come from that during the ’70s and then the ’80s impacted my desire to make a difference. Knowing what it means to literally have to fight regularly for respect, moving to a city where you’re the clear minority, and racism looking you right in the face daily fueled my passion for social justice.
My mother being a single parent for large parts of my life and literally breaking her back to provide and struggle to raise three children (I’m the oldest, with the most responsibility) helped me get a greater understanding of the struggle so many women live through daily. Knowing I could never fully relate to it did influence my interest studying women’s studies and ethnic studies.
I also learned that the equalizer is a great education: providing parents and students options to go to schools that will help each child realize their potential, creating places where the adults see it as their personal mission to educate children regardless of where the child comes from; also appreciating the gifts each student brings.
I was in so many ways a shy, insecure kid. I didn’t always love myself. My mother moving us to schools that met her expectations and even moving across state lines to increase our odds at graduating from high school and going to college leads me to want parents not to have to do that. When I visit top-performing schools serving populations of students who statistically are underserved in school systems, I notice teachers and staff like the educators who made so much difference in me making it to and thriving in college.
I want to normalize that support for all children so they can provide that hope for their future children. I know that to do this, educators need to also work in a system that supports their growth and success. That’s what we are doing.
Poverty is often pointed to as an insurmountable barrier to high achievement in urban education. We owe all kids opportunity, but can’t expect success. What’s your take?
I believe that poverty is a real barrier, but it’s not an insurmountable obstacle.
I know firsthand the sting and sometimes humiliation that can come with growing up poor. I also know how, with the right supports, it can fuel a strong drive to succeed.
That played out not only in my life, but I also see it in the voices and faces of our children in Oakland. It’s exactly why I was so interested in seeing the Oakland Promise be a reality and why I appreciate so much the partnership with the mayor and several partners in the city. They all agree that poverty should not be a big stop sign in the lives of our young people.
I will add that because of poverty and a need to view all children from an asset mindset, we need to improve our educational practices. We can’t give our children only what we got. They need way more than that. We came through a system that was designed to sort children and did a great job of it: some for college and career, others for labor, and others as dropouts who might become on or the other. Decisions were made, and families and children had little say in the options. That got us to where we are.
We need to prepare all students for college and careers. Give them choices and let them understand that there’s value in so many kinds of choices involving certificates, associate degrees, bachelor and advanced degrees. If they know all the options, the power is in their hands.
Who is/was your role model for success?
My role models growing up were my mother (strength, love, caring for others regardless of what you’re facing) and a mentor of mine named Tim Carroll (confidence, doing more than the job description, cool). He was an African-American teacher who went on to be a Milken Foundation Award winning educator. He served as a surrogate father and educational mentor and friend.
Now in addition to them, it’s President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama (hope, intelligence, perseverance, love of family). Steve Jobs (innovation, excellence, iteration). Vince Lombardi (striving for perfection to get excellence, teamwork, and productive struggle toward accomplishing a common goal). Magic Johnson (fun, second chances, evolution).