By Doug Oakley
OAKLAND -- Like a large number of the 37,000 public school students here who are now under his care, Antwan Wilson grew up poor with just a single teenage mom to guide him.
Oakland's new superintendent of schools officially starts his job Tuesday, July 1. He made the leap from Denver where he was for five years an assistant superintendent at Denver Public Schools, a district more than twice the size of Oakland's.
"Having been a young person who was in a single parent household with a teenage mother growing up poor, Oakland resonates with me," Wilson, 42, said. "There's a passion."
Wilson takes over from Gary Yee, a former school board member who gave up his seat to serve as superintendent while the board searched for a permanent replacement for Tony Smith, who quit in June 2013 and moved to Chicago.
Wilson has a challenge to turn around the perennially troubled district. .
He is inheriting a district with students scarred by the city's unrelenting daily violence that often spills over onto school campuses. And a large number of Oakland schools have been failing academically for decades. Last year 33 of the district's 86 schools -- 38 percent -- were ranked at the very bottom of California's Academic Performance Index.
The district's bureaucracy is so dysfunctional, according to a recent Alameda County grand jury report, it can't complete state financial audits because it is unable to find its own records. In April district staff drew up a budget approved by top administrators with revenue projections that were off by nearly $70 million.
"I love challenge," Wilson said. "But I also see opportunity to make a difference in the lives of young people who need education the most."
Wilson said turning around such a large organization involves "identifying talented people, recruiting them and supporting them and not ceding ground to high expectations."
He hasn't wasted any time. On June 25 the school board approved a $157,500 contract for Bernard McCune, a Wilson colleague from Denver, to head a newly created department focusing on getting kids ready for careers and college.
The new department, called the Office of Post Secondary Readiness, is the office Wilson ran in Denver for five years.
"I recruited him from Chicago to Denver and now I've recruited him to Oakland," Wilson said of McCune. "Anywhere I go, I am going to focus on post secondary readiness. If I was going to Mars, I would have an office of post secondary readiness."
Wilson said a key to raising the graduation rate in Oakland from its current 62 percent is to make sure students understand why their education is important.
"Most kids who don't graduate don't understand why they need to," Wilson said. "If they don't graduate, they might be able to get a job, but they are really going to struggle with getting a career."
Van Schoales, CEO of an educational advocacy group called A + Denver, said Wilson's success in Oakland will depend largely on the people he hires. "I think sometimes folks are looking for heroes and that this guy is superman because he's turned high schools around and he did x, y and z," Schoales said. "But the reality is that he was part of a team. It's not all Antwan, and it's not going to be whomever your next pick for superintendent is. It's going to be what kind of team you build."
Schoales said the Denver team that included Wilson has been successful with underperforming schools because it brought in charters that helped "all boats rise," and because he was not afraid to ask for help, including from outside nonprofits that helped with management.
Wilson's former boss, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg, who said he's sorry to see Wilson go.
"If you said five years ago 'here's what I'm going to do in Denver: cut the dropout rate in half, increase on time graduation rate by 20 points, and cut suspensions and expulsions by more than half,' a lot of people would have said 'be serious.' He led those initiatives and he did it," Boasberg said. "Oakland could not be getting a finer leader in superintendent."
In Oakland, falling enrollment has left the district with too many schools that waste money on both labor and capital costs, according to the grand jury report. When asked if he would close schools either because they were under-enrolled or underperforming academically, Wilson said options have to include a strategy to improve a school "and if they don't improve then we have a different program, different leadership. The school building is just a building."
Whatever Wilson does in his tenure here, the hope and expectations are high.
"I don't know much about him, but I'm very optimistic," said Brian Rogers, executive director of the Rogers Family Foundation whose sole mission is to better Oakland public schools. "There is an understanding in the district that it can't do business as usual. We have at least 25 schools that for decades have operated in the lowest ranking in the state. And even though Oakland is in the position it is in, I truly believe there is a group in the school district who are beginning to come together around a plan for transformation."
Reach Doug Oakley at 925-234-1699. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/douglasoakley.