Late last month, Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) Superintendent Antwan Wilson was nominated to become the new school chief of D.C. Public Schools. This has been a tumultuous couple of years in Oakland, marked at times by divisive rhetoric and deadlocks, but also some real progress that will last beyond this superintendent.
While the media and advocates have tended to focus on the charter school question in Oakland, and the bloody battle over a single application for all public schools— charter and district—the most important legacies and progress was missed.
A Different Approach
- Improving services and results for African-American students.
The superintendent didn’t start the African American Male Achievement Initiative (AAMAI) or the corresponding program for young Black women (AAFAI), but he did keep them moving and highlight them. Different children often experience school differently, facing a range of explicit and implicit biases. Creating dedicated offices, and funding them, is a huge step towards equity and its paying off in rapidly advancing graduation rates. This is working.
- Significantly improved programs for English-language learners (ELLs).
OUSD has historically provided very substandard services to ELLs. This is a predictably large segment of students, roughly 1 in 3, who received predictably substandard services. When Superintendent Wilson came in, Stanford was conducting a review of services—the results were disturbing, with widespread bullying, very weak supports, and little academic content for ELLs—and changes were made. Finally, we are able to see significant changes and reclassification of students to English proficient.
- Financial stability.
Boring but important, the district solidified its financial status and improved its bond rating, which will save millions of dollars—money that can be spent on students. We lost control of the district when we couldn’t manage the finances—and I don’t think anyone can argue that that was good for kids, or that the state administrator was better than any elected superintendent.
A Better Vision for Oakland
I always felt Superintendent Wilson saw himself in our kids in Oakland. He saw the promise that we have and also the challenges that many children face, and understood the role that schools can play in changing trajectories. At times, maybe his eyes were bigger than his stomach, trying to do too much too soon without really knowing the capacity to successfully implement change.
His move towards a more inclusionary setting in special education was met with substantial resistance. Some of the school turnaround work seemed too hasty and unsupported. And, the aborted move to do common enrollment with district and charter schools—which even though over 70 percent of parents supported, was met with predictable interest group resistance and ambivalence from many of the schools themselves—ultimately failed.
Obviously others in Oakland have different opinions, and strong ones, though public support for the district and its leadership are at historic highs. But when the smoke has cleared, and the rhetoric has died down, I do think we are better off in Oakland, and particularly for some of our most vulnerable populations we are seeing real, demonstrable progress.
This never comes down to one leader who makes this happen. It’s the hard daily work in schools, communities and homes, which will continue. But empathy and vision matter, and can set a context for improvement.
As the superintendent leaves, I hope we don’t stall or stray. That we build off this work and continue the progress in communities. We are moving in basically the right direction but the progress will, as it always has, depend on us.