Antwan Wilson, back in Nebraska after tumultuous tenures in two troubled urban school districts, drew on his experiences as a student in Lincoln to illustrate how to eliminate the achievement gap.
Setting high expectations and loving your students are keys to reaching the least successful students, he said.
“I can’t love you if I don’t get to know you,” said Wilson, the keynote speaker at the annual Lincoln Public Schools multicultural leadership institute for staff.
“What works with the least successful students? Get to know them. Know their story, listen to them, care about their families. The people who came to understand what was going on in my home were not sympathizing but having some level of empathy and understanding.”
Wilson, born in poverty to a single mom he credits with much of his success, said he didn’t eat lunch at Lincoln High in part because he didn’t want to show his lunch card, which indicated he was on a subsidized lunch plan for low-income students.
One of his teachers knew what was going on, he said, and so she’d offer him snacks in class.
Another teacher inspired him by taking the time to reach out and tell him he was a good writer.
“What I learned through their example is that young people lean into expectation more than they lean into coercion.”
Wilson, who graduated from LHS and Nebraska Wesleyan University and has joined the Wesleyan faculty, said he focuses on social justice through the lens of education.
He rocketed onto the national stage for his success at raising the graduation rate and improving academic performance as a teacher and school administrator in Wichita, Kansas, and Denver.
In 2014, he became superintendent at the Oakland Unified School District in California.
He raised graduation rates and improved academic performance there, but also faced criticism for budget issues and for what community members perceived as an attempt to convert some schools to charters.
In 2016, he was hired as chancellor of education in Washington, D.C., but was forced to resign in February after it was revealed his daughter’s move to another high school violated transfer policies.
He addressed the issue briefly Wednesday, saying his daughter was miserable and he and his wife considered having her attend a private school or live with relatives so she could attend another school. He made no demands, but school officials offered them several options, he said, and his wife chose one.
His daughter’s experience, where she felt isolated, confirmed the importance of educators' work, he said. She had love and support at home, but that’s not always the case.
“If it was that hard for her, how many other hundreds of kids were dealing with that every day," he said. "Our work ... is to get people to appreciate and to recognize you have to create environments where young people love to be."
His own mother relied on the help of teachers, and he succeeded because of her unwavering expectation that he would go to college, he said.
That meant he always took higher-level classes at Lincoln High, but he saw friends with just as much talent who did not.
Educators must help young people understand they are college material — anything from four-year institutions to one-year certification programs.
“I’m agnostic,” he said. “What I care about is that the choice is theirs. It’s not our choice. We didn’t self-select, we didn’t deny them opportunities from taking rigorous courses. We put them in a position to reach their goals and they were able to do it.”
He faced adversity as a young person, he said, but it helped build the drive he needed for later successes.
“It’s not adversity we’re trying to remove from young people’s lives, necessarily,” he said. “The adversity is a teacher. What we’re trying to do is provide the supports to get through the adversity.”
Schools he's worked at have reduced suspensions, he said, not by accepting misbehavior, but by looking at it through a different lens: an invitation to spend more time with teachers. Because sending students home reinforces bad behavior.
“Have you ever thought that’s what they were trying to do? Because when I can’t read and I’m 13 years old, it’s much more acceptable to have people think I don’t care than to know I can’t do it.”
Instead, he said, the misbehavior results not in idle time in a suspension room, but more time to read, write and do math with teachers.
“Their only chance of becoming an individual who understands behaving that way doesn't work is time with you,” he said.
Teachers, he said, need to be supported and they need to love what they do, and school systems must be built around social and emotional supports as well as academics — and the belief that no student can fail.
“It’s only when you create those kinds of environments that you eliminate achievement gaps.”