Credit: Photo courtesy of DCPS

In the eight months since he took the helm of D.C. Public Schools, Chancellor Antwan Wilson has done as much to distinguish himself from his predecessor as he has to build on her legacy. 

He arrived under cover of darkness last November as Mayor Muriel Bowser secretively sprung his nomination on an education community that had grown distrustful of a centralized power structure under the thumb of the politically untouchable Kaya Henderson.

Wilson had nothing to do with either circumstance, and debuted as a true educator with a quiet commitment to children. His mantra of empowerment has a broad appeal, and the education community wants to believe in him. 

But the honeymoon is dwindling, and policymakers and advocates are looking for details and transparency as he walks the line between embracing successful reforms and forging his own path. Central to that path is decentralized decisionmaking and a focus on the “whole child,” a concept he wants school leaders, teachers, parents, and students to own. 

When will he put something concrete on the table to explain how he plans to accomplish this, is the question. “Chancellor Wilson has articulated the right aspirational goals,” says Catharine Bellinger, director of the D.C. chapter of Democrats For Education Reform. “I would like to see [him] articulate this idea further, as it signals a welcome shift in strategy—the school as the lever for change. How will this [affect] policy and practice?” 

Wilson is a tall man with a gentle handshake. He eschews fiery rhetoric but in a soft-spoken manner conveys a sense of conviction. He uses edu-speak—as most education people do—but is capable of going off script. He is at his best when he speaks from personal experience.

“What does excellence look like?” he asks during a recent chat with Loose Lips. “How do we promote equity for students who need it most, in addition to our students who come from families where they are expected to be successful?”

Under Henderson’s tenure, DCPS claims, her 2012 strategic plan produced aggregated gains on standard tests, improved graduation rates, and led to higher enrollment. DCPS projected itself as a model of reform, particularly outside the District. “No one loves you locally like they love you nationally,” Wilson says. “And I will tell you that, nationally, school districts have been in love with DCPS for awhile.”  

Wilson’s strategic plan builds on Henderson’s progress, while calling out the inequities she left behind. D.C.’s system has struggled to show improvement in schools that need it most. He proposes to double the percent of college ready students—triple for at-risk students; prepare 100 percent of K-2 students to read at or above grade level; and graduate 90 percent of students in five years. 

His more nebulous claims are that he wants 100 percent of students to feel “loved, challenged, and prepared,” and 100 percent of DCPS schools to become “highly rated or improving.” The first endeavor wins over some, while others wonder what he actually plans to do to achieve any of this. But get him talking, and he is undaunted by skepticism. 

“Culture eats the lunch of strategy everyday,” Wilson says. “We know that whether people are successful in their 30s depends less on aptitude and more on attitude.” 

Academic performance is one thing, but holistic growth, self-dependence, and accountability are what Wilson is after. “We want to develop resilient kids who have high expectations and believe in themselves, who know how to accept feedback, who know how to relate to other people … That’s what we’re trying to grow, and those are the types of employees we are trying to hire.”

He relates to these goals on a personal level. “I went to a different elementary school every year and lived in 15 different houses before graduation,” Wilson says, emphasis on graduation. “You don’t want to be going through that. You want to be in one school. You’re meeting new friends, but sometimes you are dealing with bullying, anxiety, and fear. It probably fed my introversion and shyness.”

As the oldest of three, Wilson says he took on extra responsibility. His mother worked multiple jobs and moved her children to different schools when she didn’t think the academic environment was rigorous enough. Such vigilance paid off as Wilson fielded offers to attend private and public colleges. 

“I had to learn,” he says. “I had some high school teachers that made sure I was in the right class, made sure I advanced, made sure I did the work. I also had some elementary school teachers who challenged me, and sometimes spoke [the] magic words that I hated to hear ‘We spoke to your mother.’ And that makes a difference.”

He has an explicit challenge to DCPS parents. “Sometimes I see families obsessing over ‘My kid has to be in this school or that school or they won’t make it.’ And what I say to a parent is, ‘You make the difference, you send your child to this DCPS school, you spend time meeting with school leaders and getting involved with the PTA or the local school government council, you and your neighbors come to our parent cabinet meetings together, and your child will be successful.’”

Wilson cites various methods he believes in—home visits, excursions to expose children to new people and places, collaboration among agencies that provide health care and job training—but he keeps coming back to matters of the heart. “All of our teachers care,” he says. And of students: “When you really care for them, they’ll let you challenge them. They know you are not trying to hurt them. They know you’re not trying to judge them negatively.”

Empowering schools to develop their own culture is a shift away from Henderson’s legacy of centralized curricular control and standard tests as the measure of achievement. “His plan suggests an urgency in what needs to be done now,” says Laura Wilson Phelan, Ward 1 representative to the D.C. State Board of Education. “I love that he is talking about the whole child. He’s struck a balance between that and the priorities he has set. His five goals are spot on. They are clear, and not unreasonable. That is the sweet spot, and that breeds confidence in me.”

Ward 6 representative to the state board Joe Weedon likes the initiatives Wilson has outlined, but is unimpressed with the level of community engagement and what he sees as a lack of specificity in how funding for at-risk students will be spent—a legitimate concern, given Henderson’s failure to adequately fund her pledge to improve underperforming schools. At-risk schools may have seen marginal improvements, he says, but that is because of the achievement among white, affluent children that attend those schools. “The rhetoric is right,” Weedon says, “but I’m not sure he has conveyed how the resources are reaching those who need it most. It’s hard to see much movement on the ground.”  

Bellinger tells LL that she does not think Wilson has fully grasped the support he has across the education spectrum to stick his neck out further and meet the skeptics with more concrete details that speak to his vision.

“For the first 10 years of reform, tight [central] management was the only way to get the kinds of gains we’ve seen in student achievement, talent, and enrollment,” she says. “Now it’s time to expand school-level decision-making authority. The question is whether the chancellor realizes that he has the public support and political capital to lead on this front. My sense is that he’s an extremely capable educator and leader, but is still adjusting to the politics of D.C. It’s a bit of the proverbial ‘hiding one’s light under a bushel,’ but I don’t think he needs to. D.C. is ready for his vision.”