By Supt. Antwan Wilson
The New York Times recently wrote an article about our efforts to improve public education: Oakland District at Heart of Drive to Transform Urban Schools. It has generated a lot of important feedback, and I wanted to take this opportunity to share my thoughts.
Motoko Rich, the Times’ lead education reporter, worked hard to understand our work. But it’s not easy to tell a complex story like Oakland’s in one newspaper story, and there were certainly opportunities missed to deepen the conversation. Several national and local authors felt that the article did not give voice to the mainly Black and Brown families that have been failed for decades under our system – even longer than the seven superintendents that preceded me over the last twenty years.
These parents and students are bearing the brunt of the inequities and lack of quality schools in Oakland’s public education system, and they have been for decades now. That needs to change. I know we can do better, and to do so we must both strengthen the programs that are working and bring in new schools to drive greater equity and serve our families better.
As I shared in an interview with Maya Pope-Chappell, the head of education publishing with LinkedIn and a female African American leader, I find that the polarization in the arguing – which is much of what has come in the wake of this national coverage – is distracting and harmful.
What we really need to focus on is quality and getting people access and equity. By moving away from arguing about district versus charter and moving toward giving all parents the same opportunities that more affluent parents have to determine where their children go to school, we put parents and families in the driver’s seat.
Rather than arguing, I’d like to work together to help some of our struggling schools implement the innovations many families have found so attractive in our successful charter schools. While working on a way to pay for extending the school day across Oakland schools, let’s make sure our students who most need more instructional time have a longer school day now.
I know firsthand what it’s like to be provided public education equity – rigorous instruction with high standards and quality supports. It helped make me who I am today. I also know what it’s like to be tracked toward failure and expected to arrive there. That made me feel angry and disillusioned at times. It’s this personal experience that led me to enter public education.
And it’s the unacceptable reality that too many of our children are still not getting a quality public education that drives me forth every day.
I am not asking you to choose sides. I am here to offer more quality schools to our families and our kids. Now. That’s my “agenda.” Nothing more. I remain focused on our vision – Every Student Thrives!
And when I hear people say we should wait, slow down, or not move “too fast,” I think about what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail; “For years now I have heard the word ‘wait’…This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.”
We moved quickly to increase salaries for our teachers to attract and retain the best front-line educators serving our children. We moved quickly to provide every teacher a laptop, and more to our children. We moved quickly to cut millions from district-office budgets to give more resources to schools.
We must continue to move with urgency to create a system of schools focused on educating all children well. Let’s cut through the supposed “agendas” and “sides” and all focus together on the lives of our children.
Antwan Wilson is the superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District.