NewsThe 74 Interview

74 Interview: D.C. Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson on Closing the City’s Achievement Gap and How His District Is Unlike Any Other in America

By Carolyn Phenicie | October 20, 2017

Photo: D.C. Public Schools

Read previous 74 interviews with former D.C. mayor and councilman Vincent C. Gray, New Orleans Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr., and former education secretary John King, or check out the full archive.

Washington, D.C., is, without a doubt, a district on the rise.

A decade ago, former mayor Adrian Fenty and hard-charging chancellor Michelle Rhee instituted a number of sweeping reforms, including mayoral control, a teachers contract that rewards top-performing educators, and closure of underenrolled and poor-performing schools.

(Reinventing America’s Schools — Washington, D.C.)

Now test scores are going up — it was the fastest-improving big-city district, as judged by a 2015 national test — and its high school graduation rate rose 16 percentage points in five years.

The man charged with continuing that progress, while getting at the continuing disparities across the city, is Antwan Wilson, who began his tenure as chancellor in February after leading the Oakland, California, schools.

“You can’t really grasp how determined people are about education until you’re here and you’re in it and then you begin to recognize that this is the most unique place to do this work in the country,” Wilson said of education reform in the nation’s capital.

He worked as a teacher and school leader in North Carolina, Kansas, and Nebraska before taking over as principal of a low-performing high school in Denver. Wilson served as an assistant superintendent in Denver before becoming the schools chief in Oakland in 2014.

Wilson, whose wife is a career educator and whose three children attend DCPS schools, and Mayor Muriel Bowser last month released a new five-year strategic plan, designed to get at continuing disparities in the city. The graduation rate, 69 percent in the 2015–16 school year, is still well below the national average, which has risen into the low 80s in recent years. And D.C., like most cities, has big achievement gaps between its white students and students of color, and between low-income students and wealthier ones.

The plan spells out six specific goals, including increasing the number of students who are college- and career-ready, getting all young children reading on grade level, an 85 percent on-time graduation rate, and a 90 percent re-enrollment rate with the district serving 54,000 students. (DCPS enrollment last school year was about 48,600. Another 41,500 students attended charter schools, and 1,200 attended private schools using the district’s unique federally funded scholarships.)

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Wilson spoke with The 74 in his office in Washington in mid-October. The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The 74: You’ve been on the job a little more than nine months. What’s surprised you about D.C.?

Wilson: I get that question a lot. Most of it has been as I thought … that is, that I would find a city committed to improving education, I would find people who cared a lot about education and cared about kids [and] success, that we were going to build upon some things that were successful that the city had learned some things over the last decade. I was excited about that … I was hoping there would be continued interest, in continuing to build in D.C. because there was, from my perspective, still plenty to do, in spite of the fact that the district had made tremendous progress.

For me, what you can’t understand completely until you’re here is just the amount of pride that exists here, both in terms of the people who have been born here, generations … who have come through the system, as well as the amount of understanding that equity of experience and outcomes is an important focus.

As I moved around the city, regardless of what neighborhood I was in, I regularly heard about the achievement gap and the need to do better. I wouldn’t say from the standpoint that I was surprised. I knew that the achievement gap was something we needed to focus on. I knew that people were passionate, and rightly so, as I studied from afar, [about] the tremendous success that D.C. has had, but you can’t really grasp how determined people are about education until you’re here and you’re in it and then you begin to recognize that this is the most unique place to do this work in the country.

Anything in your past experiences, in Denver or Oakland or elsewhere, that really set you up to come to D.C.?

I think that my career has been a lead up to this in so many different ways. I would go all the way back to North Carolina, teaching …

Teaching, specifically, in the classroom, and being a school leader, gave me a real understanding of how things feel on the ground, even when they’re the right things. Giving people some ability to make decisions and not feel like they’re being completely dictated to, that’s important, and I think that experience prepared me.

And then going into leadership positions centrally, I think that the experiences in Denver and Oakland, certainly, were preparations, because you need to understand how systems work. There’s similarities.

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And you begin to recognize how local reform is, the really strong local contexts, and you begin to appreciate the role even greater. You understand at the school level, but it’s more of a macro piece in terms of how intensely involved a community needs to be in the changes and improvements. I think that’s part of the work we did in other places, and I know it’s certainly important here in D.C. that the communities feel connected to what’s happening here, and I think all of that has been helpful.

I think those other places helped build some resilience in me. I’ve always had a strong sense of determination. I believe you’ve got to be confident in setting the vision and working towards that vision, I felt comfortable about that …

Sometimes things that are printed aren’t accurate, sometimes people will be assertive around something that’s happening in one of your schools and you need to be able to defend that leader or defend those teachers, because you know they’re doing the right thing and it’s a matter of time before you see the improvement. And other times you have to go into communities where you know kids aren’t learning and people want that to be OK, and you have to say, “No, we have to make a change.” It takes some resiliency because you see people who care and are passionate who you’re having to do something different than they want in their school …

How was the strategic plan developed, and why did you choose to focus on these specific areas?

… I was given complete autonomy to decide which way to go and could have gone a number of different directions. For me, it really was important for me to come in and understand, as best that you can, in a six-month period, what’s unique about D.C. and where success has lived, what people were excited and proud of that maybe most people didn’t know about … And then to understand where there are opportunities to get better — that was really important … When we launched the strategic plan, it came after we had the opportunity to engage in some meaningful way with about 4,500 people …

I made a decision that we would build upon the last capital commitment, because that made the most sense to me. I often say to folks that it’s not about rebranding something or branding something different; we don’t have to. It’s about understanding what is needed, and I really felt like people needed to have some continuity and I still believe that, while also homing in, now I think it’s an evolution.

You have a base, now we can home in on some areas that are very hard to touch but need a lot of attention, and that is making sure that progress is shared across the city for our students who come from households, families where they make less money, or maybe parts of the city where they’ve not had the same academic achievement progress as other parts. That’s the process I went through.

For all the progress DCPS has made in recent years, there’s still a large achievement gap. How are you tackling that?

In talking about D.C.’s story and achievement, the specific achievement that exists in the city, and the progress over the last decade, and then turning to the achievement gap, I think it’s important to be willing to get into the nuance.

Why do I say that? No one’s going to be pleased to see an achievement gap, but when you then think about the fact that the progress for the students at the top has accelerated at a pace that leads the nation and then you recognize that the other students, who are also growing, and in many ways growing faster than comparable groups of students in similarly situated cities, but they aren’t keeping pace with the progress made by the students at the top within the city, then you can put it in context.

The district has things that are working, right? Really focusing on talent, and supporting and developing that talent. The district has focused on curriculum, and that’s working, and we need to continue that focus and recognize that having better material, that benefits all students. Of course it benefits students who are better prepared coming in, but now we can go in and we can hone and we can be more targeted toward how do we make sure that students in some of our schools that have been growing at a slower rate, how do we make sure that we understand what their unique needs are?

As it relates to the achievement gap going forward, it is just to say that as we maintain our high expectations, and we continue to see students across the city grow, how do we make sure that that growth exists for our males of color? How do we make sure that our females of color are growing? How do we make sure that our students who have an IEP [are in special education], regardless of where they sit, regardless of racial and ethnic background, how do we make sure those students are getting the best education and prepared to succeed? And then how do we make sure English learners, as that population continues to grow in the city … how do we target some specific supports for them?

What we know is that if we can triple the percentage of those students who are college- and career-ready within the next five years, that would be tremendous progress and would begin to close the achievement gap that has persisted for decades across the country … We are trying to say how do we accelerate the growth of a group of students who are growing, just not at the pace we’d like? … You have to be willing to spend that time and understand that in D.C. because it is definitely a nuanced story, it’s definitely building upon things that are working, but it’s now targeting [what isn’t working].

I do believe that what we’re trying to get at in our strategic plan is trying to say, “Look, we have to have a bar of excellence. Excellence is in academics, it is in the service we provide … while focusing heavily on equity and love.” That’s it.

Equity, how do we make sure that all students reach those expectations that we have, and then in what type of environment? We want students to feel like we really care about them. We believe that that feeling, that belief that students have, they will allow us to push them, they will allow us to correct them, and they’ll also allow us to guide them, as they have to make decision as they grow. That best positions us to address the achievement gap over the long haul and make students more available for the extra support that they need …

That to me is what we’re trying to operationalize here. We could not do that in D.C. if the prior 10 years hadn’t happened in terms of coming in and making sure that the school system worked, that we had talented people, that we have a real curriculum, that we have support from the city …

One of the goals in the strategic plan is to improve student retention. I know middle school has been a point at which a lot of families leave DCPS for other choices in the city. How are you getting at that?

Middle school is an area we’re focusing on, and have been, the district focused on before I came. And then for me it made a lot of sense. I chose to teach in middle school and be a principal in a middle school, one, because it’s crazy fun, and then two, it’s because I understand how important those years are.

We believe that it was important to focus there because we were seeing some of the families, particularly of our students who are performing on the higher end, looking for other options. We believe it really comes down to having really welcoming, safe environments where we have talented teachers who love kids and express that. Where we have rigorous academic opportunities both in terms of your core academic programs but also really strong co-curricular and extracurricular activities, with an expectation as students that you will participate in those …

Now co-curricular activities, these are the types of things that you can do during the school day as a class, but then can carry over after school, your speech and debate, your drama, your band, art and music, but also robotics and mock trial, Science Olympiad.

All of those things that students, sometimes their parents want them to do it, they don’t know why they have to do it. But when they get into it they realize how much they really love it. Those classes reinforce the types of behaviors, types of skills, the type of rigor that students need to see in their regular school day. It prepares them in ways, exposes them, because you kind of have to be out there and be vulnerable a little bit, so it helps students get feedback, also know how to accept it and give it.

Then the extracurricular activities, we think, oftentimes, those tend to be passions for young people. By being able to tap into young people’s passions and creating environments where they like being, makes it a little easier to get them to do some things maybe they don’t enjoy as much. We also get a little bit of understanding of what makes kids tick. We think those are the things that are going to make a difference.

I think that connecting our elementary schools to our middle school experience in a really meaningful way, and then preparing those students to meet a rigorous expectation when they get to high school [will also help improve retention] … Those middle school experiences are about preparing you to understand what college and career life is going to be like. The middle school investment makes a lot of sense.

The middle schools are some of our fastest-improving schools. You look at the PARCC assessments, and I want to say sixth and seventh grade lead the district in terms of performance … [English test scores were highest districtwide for fifth- and seventh-graders; math scores were highest among seventh-graders taking the Algebra I exam and eighth-graders taking the geometry exam.]

Our investments in middle school are working, and we need to continue to focus there and we will, so that our students are successful.

At the same time we’re focusing on middle school, we’re putting a focus on early childhood literacy as well. We believe that students learning to read by second grade really prepares them for the reading to learn that they begin to do in third grade on and that will go a long way into helping students be successful.

Since the start of the Trump administration, politics is coming into schools in a way it hasn’t before. How have some of the administration’s policy changes, like revoking DACA protections or Title IX guidance protecting transgender students, affected DCPS? (D.C. offers a host of protections to immigrants, and gender identity is protected under the city’s Human Rights Act.)

It just made it more important that we’re leading, that we’re doing everything we can to position our schools to be places where all students are welcome … [Family engagement] is more important so that all families recognize that regardless of whatever else is happening other places, that all our schools are places where we want you, value you, and we’re going to do everything we can to keep your students safe and we want you to be safe.

I think as it relates to protections for groups of students based on identity or anything else, we are saying that this is a safe place. This is a place where people are valued and respected.

Really investing in culture, when we talk about a nurturing environment, and love, that’s everybody: that’s our students, that’s our families, that’s our teachers. We want to create those types of environments where we have super-high expectations for ourselves, but people know that “Man, there’s something different happening in D.C. They’re really trying to figure this out in terms of creating these spaces.”

If we do that here, that helps the rest of the country see that you don’t have to be rude, you don’t have to find ways to exclude people, that we can live up to the ideals of our country by actually practicing the values that our country has. Our country certainly is one that is about respecting people and respecting difference.

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