The 70 teachers who showed up to a school board meeting here recently in matching green and black T-shirts paraded in a circle, chanting, “Charter schools are not public schools!” and accusing the superintendent of doing the bidding of “a corporate oligarchy.”
The superintendent, Antwan Wilson, who is an imposing 6-foot-4, favors crisp suits and Kangol caps and peers intensely through wire-rimmed glasses, has become accustomed to confrontation since he arrived in this activist community from Denver two years ago. One board meeting last fall reached such a fever pitch that police officers moved in to control the crowd.
Mr. Wilson is facing a rebellion by teachers and some parents against his plan to allow families to use a single form to apply to any of the city’s 86 district-run schools or 44 charter campuses, all of which are competing for a shrinking number of students.
How he fares may say a great deal not only about Oakland, but also about this moment in the drive to transform urban school districts. Many of them have become rivalrous amalgams of traditional public schools and charters, which are publicly funded but privately operated and have been promoted by education philanthropists.
Mr. Wilson is trying to bring the traditional schools into closer coordination with the charters. “If he gets it right, it’s a model for moving past the polarized sense of reform that we have right now,” said Robert C. Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.
But Mr. Wilson has emerged as a lightning rod partly because he is one of a cadre of superintendents who have been trained in an academy financed by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. Like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, Mr. Broad, a Los Angeles billionaire who made his fortune in real estate and insurance, is one of a group of businessmen with grand ambitions to remake public education.
His foundation has pumped $144 million into charter schools across the country, is embroiled in a battle to expand the number of charters in his home city, and has issued a handbook on how to close troubled public schools.
Unique among the education philanthropists, his foundation has also contributed more than $60 million over 15 years to a nonprofit that trains superintendents and administrators, convinced that they are key to transforming urban school systems.
When Mr. Broad first announced the initiative in 2001, he noted that the average urban schools leader lasted just over two years and had little preparation in finances or management.
The new academy, he said, would “dramatically change this equation“ by seeking candidates in educational circles as well as recruiting from corporate backgrounds and the military, introducing management concepts borrowed from business. Those chosen embark on a two-year fellowship, trained and mentored while working in their districts.
The fellows meet with speakers from think tanks, other school districts, charter networks and the business world. During one session last fall in New York, administrators from large districts shared a conference room with charter leaders and discussed challenges they have in common: how to recruit racial minorities to teaching, how to staff executive teams, and how to change punitive disciplinary cultures.
Regardless of training, any leader of a large school district faces daunting challenges. Superintendents “deal with a very unusual stew of people who are often divided by race and language and income and religion,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, a coalition of urban districts where the average chief now lasts just over three years. Those diverse groups, he said, are “all fighting over the one thing that they care most passionately about: their children.”
Broad-trained superintendents currently run districts in two dozen communities, including Boston, Broward County, Fla., and Philadelphia. They have lasted an average of four and three-quarter years, delivering incremental academic progress at best. Like others in the field, they have run up against the complexities of trying to improve schools bedeviled by poverty, racial disparities, unequal funding and contentious local politics.
Some prominent academy alumni have resigned after tumultuous terms. Mike Miles, the Dallas schools superintendent, quit last June after just three years, during which he battled teachers over new evaluation criteria and performance-based pay.
In Los Angeles, John Deasy stepped down as superintendent in the fall of 2014 after a turbulent tenure in which he testified against teachers’ unions during a landmark trial involving tenure and job protections, and presided over a botched rollout of a $1.3 billion plan to give all students iPads. That same year, John Covington abruptly resigned as chancellor of a state-operated district for the lowest performing schools in Detroit. Two years earlier, Jean-Claude Brizard resigned from the Chicago Public Schools after 17 months on the job and a bruising teachers’ strike.
Still, Mr. Broad said his money is well spent. “When I look at how many students are educated in public school systems where our alumni are and have worked,” he wrote in an email, “there is no question that this has been a worthwhile investment.”
Oakland is the kind of place where philanthropists hope to make a difference. Here, across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco, close to three-quarters of the 37,000 students in district-run schools come from low-income families. About 30 percent of the students are African-Americans, and more than 40 percent are Latino.
A little over a decade ago, the district was in financial chaos. The state put the district into receivership and extended a $100 million loan just to cover payroll.
In 2003, the state appointed the first of a string of Broad-trained administrators to run the district, free of local school board authority. Randolph Ward, who was then a state administrator of a troubled district in Compton, near Los Angeles, arrived as Oakland was embarking on an initiative to open a series of small public schools of 250 to 600 students apiece, depending on grade levels — several hundred fewer than at typical campuses.
During his time here, Mr. Ward opened two dozen small schools but also closed 14 schools. New charter schools were also opening, cutting into enrollment at district schools.
Mr. Ward was succeeded briefly by two other Broad alumni, Kimberly Statham and Vincent Matthews. All three declined to comment for this article. Meanwhile, the district is still paying back its debt.
The Broad-trained superintendents — along with other non-Broad state-appointed administrators — had modest success in raising student achievement. Between 2004 and 2010, scores on standardized reading and math tests grew more than in any other California district with population similar in size.
Still, less than a quarter of students met standards on tests last spring, below state averages. At the charter schools, by contrast, about a third met math standards and close to 40 percent met reading standards — although the charters educate fewer students with disabilities, an element that can depress test score averages.
Mr. Wilson arrived as the first Broad-trained superintendent to be hired by a re-empowered and elected school board. It voted for him unanimously, attracted by his record in Denver. There, he had been an assistant superintendent and worked with several struggling schools.
During Mr. Wilson’s tenure, Denver — also led by a Broad-trained superintendent — combined charters and more traditional schools in one enrollment system, as Mr. Wilson now proposes in Oakland.
Mr. Wilson, who is African-American, describes growing up poor and being raised by a single mother and said he entered education because of a commitment to social justice. He said he had a “visceral reaction” when he heard arguments about children in poverty “and how we need to fix that first before we can educate them. I am thinking that it’s actually educating them that gives them a chance to fix some poverty.”
By the time he arrived in Oakland, residents were frustrated by a history of financial mismanagement and persistently low test scores and graduation rates. Many educators in district schools felt as if they were fighting for their professional lives as charters took more and more students — and public funding — away.
Today, charters account for about a quarter of public school enrollment in the city, while the combined population of students in Oakland’s district and charter schools has declined by about 13 percent since 2000.
While the teachers’ union and some parent groups worry that district-run public schools will ultimately be eviscerated by competition from charters, other parents are voting with their feet, sending their children to the newer schools.
Kenetta Jackson, a housing administrator and a mother of two, decided the local school in her East Oakland neighborhood was “not up to my personal standards.” Her daughter, now 16, and son, 13, have attended charter schools in the Aspire Public Schools network since they were in kindergarten.
Ms. Jackson said she did not understand the debates about the merits of charter schools. “It’s a lot of politics beyond my reach,” she said. “I’m more concerned about my children’s education. I personally think that Aspire came and saved Oakland public schools because if they didn’t come, I would be paying an arm and a leg for my kids to go to some private school somewhere, and who can afford that?”
For his part, Mr. Wilson says he is neither for nor against charters. “I want effective schools,” he said in an interview in his offices in downtown Oakland.
Since he arrived, Mr. Wilson has focused on sending more tax dollars away from the central office and directly to schools, and he negotiated a contract giving teachers a 14 percent raise, their largest in 15 years, although Oakland teachers are still paid less on average than educators in surrounding counties. Mr. Wilson is also overhauling five of the city’s most troubled campuses, moving principals and introducing new academic and enrichment programs.
He is working with both district schools and charter leaders to negotiate an agreement to meet the same standards for academics, discipline and enrollment criteria.
Although he retains a solid bloc of support on the board, some members question whether he is pushing too hard and overriding community input. “You can’t change overnight,” said Roseann Torres, a board member. “Does he understand that? I hope so. I know he feels a deep sense of urgency.”
Teachers, parents and other activists regularly turn out at board meetings to attack him. Take the furor over a plan he introduced last fall to help more students with disabilities enter mainstream classrooms.
At a meeting in October, teachers, students and parents lined up before a microphone, warning that the proposals did not provide enough funds for teachers’ aides and would lead to oversize classes, prompting an exodus of more students into charters.
At one point, the anger at Mr. Wilson boiled over and police officers helped quell the unrest. Yvette Felarca, a local activist, denounced Mr. Wilson, saying he was undermining special education “to make the charter schools more competitive with a degraded public school system.”
“When Eli Broad trained Antwan Wilson,” she shouted, “he trained him to come in here and privatize the schools!”
A few weeks ago, at another board meeting, teachers protested the proposal to unify district schools and charters under one enrollment process.
Mr. Wilson says that a single application form, where parents rank their choices among all schools and students are assigned through a computer algorithm, will reduce the ability of well-connected parents to place their children in the most desirable schools and force charters to be more open about how they admit students. Similar systems have been put in place in Washington and New Orleans and are being considered in Boston.
Opponents fear the proposal would simply hasten an exit of more students from district schools to charters. On a recent Sunday, Kim Davis, co-founder of a new parent group, explained her concerns to 19 people crowded into the living room of a fellow parent. If district schools are diminished, “teachers will be laid off, students displaced, and schools will close,” Ms. Davis warned, “which just adds to the downward spiral of the district as a whole.”
The school board is to vote on the common enrollment plan in June, while the special education plan is already going ahead.
Mr. Wilson said he sympathized with some of the anger directed at him. “It’s ‘you’re the superintendent of Oakland schools and a power structure that has not served us well, in many cases, for decades,’” he said.
But he scoffed at allegations that he is a puppet of the Broad Foundation. “People can connect all kinds of dots,” he said, adding that “no Broad agenda has ever been shared with me.”
The foundation has given to the school district in other ways: it has granted about $6 million for staff development and other programs over the last decade. The Broad Center, which runs the superintendents’ academy, has subsidized the salaries of at least 10 ex-business managers who moved into administrative jobs at the district office.
But it is the leadership turnover that has left teachers wary. “It’s just a different face at the top,” said Leona Kwon, who teaches ethnic studies at Castlemont High School. “I have not personally experienced a significant increase of support or resources at our school, so I’m skeptical that that’s ever going to happen.”
Some educators give their schools chief high marks for his attention to detail. At Frick Middle, one of five previously struggling schools that the district is trying to overhaul, Ruby Detie, the administrator appointed to lead the changes, recalled that after she told Mr. Wilson that a mouse had run over the foot of a teacher interviewing for a job, an exterminator appeared the next day.
After observing several classrooms at Acorn Woodland Elementary recently, Mr. Wilson pulled aside the principal, Leroy Gaines, to praise two fourth-grade teachers for how often they invited students to hash out problems aloud. But in bilingual kindergarten and first-grade classes, Mr. Wilson told the principal he was concerned that the teachers were speaking too much during lessons.
“I was struggling to really see the degree to which the students were really doing the thinking,” Mr. Wilson said.
At other schools, some teachers point to missteps. At Fremont High, another school being revamped, some teachers complain that Mr. Wilson replaced a bilingual principal with a leader who does not speak Spanish, though close to 60 percent of the students are Hispanic. The school redevelopment “feels almost like a takeover,” said Jasmene Miranda, a graduate of the high school who is now a media teacher there.
Mr. Wilson said that he has appointed “the best possible leaders.”
He said he understood some of the community criticism. “I think that is just, ‘Hey we’re really concerned this guy might really want to sell the farm,’ “ he said.
“Well, I don’t,” he added. “I do want to improve it, though.”