The theme of Black History Month this year is “The Crisis in Black Education.” The scope of the crisis is considerable: Results from the National Assessment for Educational Progress—a test that’s also known as the Nation’s Report Card—show almost no change in the achievement gap between White and Black students over the past 50 years. To help unpack the challenges facing African American students, we talked to educators who are tackling this crisis and implementing meaningful solutions.
Less than a month ago, Antwan Wilson took the helm of Washington, DC’s public schools as the new chancellor. Previously, he was superintendent of Oakland Unified School District in California, where he championed Oakland Promise, a cradle-to-career initiative designed to triple the number of college graduates from Oakland’s public schools within a decade. He led a district-wide initiative to expand the use of restorative justice instead of suspension, a punishment meted out more often nationwide to Black students than to White ones.
We spoke with Wilson about his personal experience with school integration as a child, the importance of educational role models, and why supporting learners never means lowering the bar.
EDUTOPIA: As a child, when did you first pick up on the idea that there is racism in the world?
ANTWAN WILSON: When I was in first grade, I lived in Wichita, Kansas, in a neighborhood that was predominantly Black. It was the era of integration, though, so most of us got bused to a school across town where all the kids were White. I didn’t know it was integration at 6 years old, but I did notice that all the kids who got off the buses were Black and all the kids at school where White, and when I went back to my neighborhood, everyone was Black again. I remember asking about it and being told that “they”—meaning White people—didn’t come into our neighborhood and that was just how it was. That was my first awareness of race. In terms of racism, I first became aware of that when I was 9 and moved to Nebraska and the kids there would make fun of my hair and my lips. That continued on through high school.
EDUTOPIA: How do you think integration worked for you? We hear a lot about integration, that it’s been proven successful in a lot of cases. But then there are schools like Urban Prep in Chicago, which is only open to African American males.
WILSON: I don’t believe that integration in the classical sense made the difference for me. As a matter of fact, there were times where I felt it would’ve been easier just to go to school in my neighborhood, so I could have developed those friendships. I think what matters more is having people in your life who stress the importance of education. I had that in my mother. I remember her saying to my teachers, “You can call me for whatever you need.” She never went to the school, but she was always talking with my teachers. And when the teachers said, “I spoke to your mother,” that wasn’t a threat—I knew they were reaching out to my mom as a way to stay connected. As a young person, I think that made a difference—I knew that relationship was there.
I think one of the reasons you hear people talk about the benefits of race- and gender-specific schools is that there was a time in our country’s history, during the Freedom School movement of the early 1970s, where there was a lot of hope spoken to young African American students. They felt a lot of respect from adults about what they could do. And, as a student, you want to live up to that. I think our students need to hear a lot more about what they can do, and that adults believe in them, regardless of what type of school they go to.
At the same time, you can’t be Pollyannaish and say, “Oh, you’re great at everything.” It just needs to be spoken in terms of what’s possible as opposed to constantly hearing what they can’t do, and how far behind they are. We have to be careful about how we message things, because it would begin to sound insurmountable for anybody if they were led to believe that they were not capable.
We can put a young person on the path to make a significant change in his or her life, which could lead to a whole different reality for that next generation.
EDUTOPIA: Do you have any specific strategies you advocate to best help African American students?
WILSON: I think the first thing we need to do is make sure that our students know that we love and believe in them. All students need to know that, but many African American students need it in particular because too often they have not gotten that message in school, or from people who are close to them. They need to know that we have expectations of success and that we believe in them. We need to expect them to be successful and expose them to rigorous material, and then wrap support around them to help them meet the challenges of that material. We have to make sure they understand it’s natural to struggle, and that it would actually be unnatural not to struggle when challenged, and that through struggle and familiarity that they will be able to excel and achieve. We can’t approach them from fear, and we cannot lower the bar. They have to know we believe they can do it and that we’re going to challenge them and push them and support them.
I used to be a coach, and I met many African American players who weren’t innately good at basketball. But they were hearing that it was possible to get better, and they did get better. But it was the time and the energy and the practice and the effort that led to their talent being manifest—it wasn’t innate. Are there people who are innately gifted? Yes, but not most of them. They worked at it. The same type of thing can be true in the math classroom or the science classroom. If they are led to believe that they have the ability to be successful with time and energy and dedication and support, they will be.
EDUTOPIA: So what does this look like for you in terms of supporting African American students throughout their schooling?
WILSON: I think these supports have to be in place before school. Ideally, it should start at birth. We need to ensure parents have access to information about the educational system and things they can be doing—talking, singing, reading, and playing with their children. We have to give these parents access to activities and programs that many middle-class parents provide for their children so that they can have the vocabulary and experience in social settings, so when they enter school the students are prepared for it. They need access to quality preschool, not just daycare, where we help expand students’ ability to play and build and create, where they begin to learn to read and do foundational mathematics, so that when students get to kindergarten they actually are in the best position to be successful.
As they get older, our young African American students deserve support in terms of being exposed to great books and great literature so they’re learning to read, but as they begin to read to learn, they are exposed to a little bit of everything—great books and literature across various cultures as well as the classics. It’s important to expose students and give them opportunities to engage in discourse and conversation so that they are being prepared for success.
Secondly, I think African American students, like all students, benefit from being exposed to things outside of their normal environment. We have students in some cities that have never been outside of their neighborhood. Likewise, we have to expose them to career options, because many of them don’t know that these careers are available to them if they take different levels of study. So many middle-class students understand that from a young age, and it becomes a matter of fact that “I can do a lot of things.”
Finally, students need to see reflections of themselves as successes within their world. That comes from people within their culture or a shared set of experiences. When we talk to our African American students about how behind they are, we’re framing it as a deficit. They internalize that and hear that they’re somehow deficient. What always helped me as a young person was hearing that I was ahead—that made me want to work harder. So we need to focus on young people’s strengths and help them leverage those strengths. Similarly, we can help them understand that there are areas where they can improve constructively, so they don’t internalize those as deficits.
EDUTOPIA: What gives you hope when you think about the future?
WILSON: I had a talented student who—despite obstacles like homelessness and violence—decided to work hard, take rigorous courses, and get involved in student leadership. He wanted to impact the system at the highest levels. And despite all his challenges, he ended up doing well in school, applied for scholarships, and was recognized by his colleagues, fellow students, and district leaders. That student gives me hope, because his story shows that, with the right supports, and regardless of what else is happening in our society, we can put a young person on the path to make a significant change in his or her life, which could lead to a whole different reality for that next generation of kids. The work we did around the Oakland Promise is to make sure the story I just shared can be true for many other students. That gives me a lot of hope.