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Founder of Brooklyn’s high-performing Ascend charter network out as CEO

Ascend charter school network CEO Steve Wilson observes students in a fourth-grade English class in 2016.
Ascend charter school network CEO Steve Wilson observes students in a fourth-grade English class in 2016.
Stephanie Snyder/Chalkbeat

The founder of Ascend charter schools, a high-performing Brooklyn network that serves more than 5,500 students, is out as CEO, Ascend’s board announced Friday.

Steven Wilson had been away from his day-to-day responsibilities since July. The board began examining his record and the organization after he wrote a controversial blog post that touched on issues of race and civil rights, Julia Bator, who co-chairs the board, told Chalkbeat.

“We want to be clear: our decision is not the result of a single event or a simple reaction to recent unrest,” Bator said in a statement to Ascend staff. “Rather, events and unrest caused us to take a serious look at the whole of Ascend, now and for the future, and to see that as we continue to evolve as a school network, our leadership can and should evolve as well.”

Wilson would not comment in detail about the circumstances of his exit, but highlighted Ascend’s commitment to providing a rigorous education for students from low-income families.

“I’ve devoted my career to addressing educational inequities,” he told Chalkbeat. “That’s my life’s purpose. And Ascend, I’m happy to say, is succeeding, and I’m sure it will continue to grow and prosper.”

Ascend opened its first school about a decade ago and has grown to include 15 schools serving elementary, middle, and high school students. The network operates in low-income Central Brooklyn neighborhoods including Brownsville, Bushwick, and East New York — and students regularly post test scores that beat city averages.

The schools also have gained attention for moving away from a zero-tolerance approach to discipline that, while prevalent in many charter schools, was producing “too many unhappy children,” Wilson told Chalkbeat in 2016.

In a June blog post published on the network’s website, which has since been removed, Wilson wrote that “civil rights advocates inadvertently exacerbated the tendency to exclude children of color in underserved communities from academic schooling.” He also wrote “civil rights activists were concerned that requiring students of color to undertake demanding academic work would discriminate against children already harmed by prejudicial treatment in other aspects of their lives.”

An online petition, which garnered some 500 signatures, accused Wilson of inaccurately framing civil rights history and misrepresenting culturally responsive education practices.

Wilson called the criticism “exactly wrong.”

“The blog is about advancing racial equality. It’s about ensuring that every child has an academically rigorous, engaging education,” he said.

Amid the reaction to the blog post, the board began a broad examination that included a look at Ascend’s internal culture, Bator said in an interview. While she would not detail their findings, she said it led the board to scrutinize the network’s “vision” and leadership. She said board members also concluded that the organization was behind on diversity, equity, and inclusion work.

Wilson acknowledged the organization has “more work to do” on that issue, but also pointed to the diversity of the staff and central office as “one of the achievements that I’m most proud of.”

Chris Cerf, a former Ascend trustee who previously served as superintendent of Newark Public Schools, praised Wilson on Friday for his work in Ascend and more broadly in public education.

“There is no greater advocate of racial equity through quality public education than Steven Wilson,” Cerf said. “More importantly, he has done more to implement that value in a way that has touched tens of thousands of lives than virtually anyone else in the field.”

Ascend is launching a national search for a new CEO. Susan Pollock, who has led the network on an interim basis, declined to stay on permanently but will remain in the role for the short term.

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