Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Broadie On The Loose In Oakland Gets The OZY Spin

Schoolhouse Rocky | Rising Stars | OZY:

Broadie On The Loose In Oakland Gets OZY Spin

Schoolhouse Rocky 

Antwan Wilson

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 bestSchoolhouse Rocky | Rising Stars | OZY:

Ozy has entered an increasingly crowded field of news sites fighting for readers and venture capital investments from technology billionaires and media giants. Last year, News Corporation took a 5 percent stake in Vice Media. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has backed Business Insider. Pierre M. Omidyar, the founder of eBay, is funding the start-up First Look Media.
For its part, Ozy, based in Mountain View, Calif., has received financing from Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Steve Jobs and a leading advocate for immigration and education reform; the angel investor Ron Conway; and David C. Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer. Now, with a small investment from Axel Springer — the exact amount is not being disclosed — it gains the backing of a global media giant.