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Antwan Wilson when he was principal of Denver's Montbello High School.

Antwan Wilson when he was principal of Denver’s Montbello High School.

Former Denver administrator, now D.C. schools chief, on why connecting with students matters

Schools need to create environments where students feel welcomed, a former Denver Public Schools administrator who now heads the Washington, D.C. school system said Thursday at a Denver event on social and emotional learning.

Antwan Wilson, who was a principal and assistant superintendent in Denver, described a former student named David who often came to school an hour early and talked with Wilson before classes began. When David graduated four years later he thanked Wilson for the many early-morning chats and confided that he’d considered dropping out of high school.

“Talking and connecting with him, that’s what he needed,” Wilson said. “There are so many Davids out there in our school systems.”

Wilson, the keynote speaker at a forum organized by the Denver-based Random Acts of Kindness Foundation, said districts must make social and emotional learning a priority and have policies that support it. Social and emotional skills help kids manage emotions, build healthy relationships and make good decisions.

In Oakland, California, where Wilson was superintendent after leaving Denver in 2014, he said the district saw huge decreases in suspensions and juvenile arrests because of a districtwide emphasis on social and emotional learning.

In Washington, where he took the helm in February, he’s in the process of hiring a deputy chancellor of social emotional academic development.

“We have a moment to shake some sense into the system and say this work is the work,” he said.