Brent Stephens, a San Francisco Unified administrator with an extensive background in public education, has been selected as the likely new superintendent of Berkeley Unified.

Donald Evans announced in January that he’d retire from the role, after leading the district for six years.

Following a national search, the Berkeley School Board interviewed candidates over the weekend, with Stephens emerging as the sole finalist. Pending a visit to his district and contract negotiations, officials are poised to confirm Stephens’s position May 8.

“I’m elated to be joining the Berkeley community,” Stephens, 48, said Tuesday.

Stephens is the longtime chief academic officer for SFUSD, leading a $70 million division and overseeing curriculum and instruction there. In February, however, in a surprise move, the San Francisco School Board declined to renew his contract. Previously Stephens was an assistant superintendent for that district, and served as the principal of schools in California and Massachusetts. He began his education career as a special education paraprofessional in college, and then worked as a Spanish-English bilingual teacher in Oakland and Boston. He earned his doctorate in urban education from Harvard University.

“In my career I have always sought out work in diverse communities,” Stephens said. In Berkeley, “I hear loud and clear the desire for families to be deeply engaged with the district.” As a teacher, Stephens became an advocate for families, visiting students’ homes and offering English classes at night to their parents, according to a Berkeley School Board press release.

“Based on the feedback received from our parents, staff, and community members, we were looking for a strong leader who is a collaborative, energetic, instructional expert who is deeply committed to equity,” said Beatriz Leyva-Cutler, Berkeley School Board vice president, in the release. “After considering many excellent candidates, we were thrilled to select Dr. Stephens as the finalist for the job of leading our district.”

As an administrator in SFUSD, Stephens led an overhaul of the district’s math program, which had students start a sequence of courses one year later, in ninth grade instead of eighth. The district stopped tracking middle school students, who were previously divided into advanced and non-advanced courses. Teachers had a stronger say in the curriculum and received more coaching at the middle school level, Stephens said.

The changes are credited with increasing the number of students who end up taking advanced math later in high school, with big gains in participation among African American, Latino and low-income students. Previously there was a high repeat rate for the low-level classes, according to the district. In Berkeley, parents have also raised concerns around high failure rates for high school math since Common Core was implemented.

Stephens also recently designed new intervention services for San Francisco students with dyslexia, improving screening to identify kids who need help, he said. The issue of identifying students with dyslexia has been a point of contention, and the subject of a lawsuit, in Berkeley.

Stephens said he intends to get to know BUSD better — “I’m not coming in with a package of changes” — before speculating on whether his work in SFUSD could be replicated Berkeley schools. But he sees parallels between the districts.

“Both communities want the very best for their children, both are serious about equity and social justice, and both wrestle with an equity gap,” he said.

“I’m not coming in with a package of changes.” —Brent Stephens

Earlier this year, the SFUSD school board decided, with a 4-3 vote, not to renew Stephen’s contract. According to the San Francisco Examiner, some board members believed equity issues were not being sufficiently addressed throughout the district, and said resources were not equitably distributed. The board voted to allow Stephens to resign.

Stephens said the decision came as a surprise, and he was “left to speculate about the reason.” He noted that the board had four newly elected members, and some other administrators shared his fate around the same time.

He guessed the “current demands for political change we’re seeing in San Francisco” prompted the board’s decision. “It was a difficult experience for me but I’m really pleased it’s working out in such a positive way.”

In a statement sent shortly after publication, Berkeley School Board member Ty Alper said, “A change in Board leadership in San Francisco resulted in a sweep of many administrative positions in the District by the new Board majority.” Berkeley officials “extensively checked Dr. Stephens’s references, including speaking with the current Superintendent in San Francisco, current and former Board members and key staff.” He said Stephens has a track record and a “commitment to equity and culturally responsive educational services.”

San Francisco board member Rachel Norton said Stephens’s departure “is a loss for San Francisco.” Norton, one of the three who did not vote to drop the administrator’s contract, declined to comment on that decision, and praised Stephens’s work in the district.

“He has a really excellent pedagogical background as an education leader,” said Norton, a Berkeley High alumna. “I think Brent has been very good at building trust across communities. He’s worked on a number of pretty difficult issues that we’ve taken on and has really modeled being a great listener.”

Donald Evans will retire this summer after six years as superintendent. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

If confirmed, Stephens will inherit a district in the midst of several round of painful budget cuts. He said he has experience “leading downsizing efforts” in his division.

This year’s budget cuts in Berkeley coincided with a campaign by the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, with educators shedding light on the challenges of living and working as a teacher in the middle of a regional housing crisis. Teacher contract negotiations have just begun, with the union asking for higher wages and more special education teachers. Stephens himself was a union leader during the Oakland teacher strike in 1996, and said he is sympathetic to the teachers’ circumstances.

Stephens also launched a popular alternative credentialing program at SFUSD, addressing a teacher shortage there by allowing classified staff and community members to pursue their teaching certification through the district. BUSD began a “grow your own” program for paraprofessionals last year too, supporting staff going through teacher training programs by providing stipends, but not directly issuing credentials like SFUSD does.

In San Francisco, Stephens’s salary was $169,000 in 2017, the most recent year included in the database Transparent California. Evans’s salary was $249,000 that year, and his San Francisco superintendent counterpart has previously made more than that.

Evans has said he will spend time with his family on the East Coast after completing his tenure in July. His own appointment to the superintendent role was preceded by controversy, when the initial appointee, Edmond Heatley, withdrew amid criticism of his management style and the revelation that he had publicly supported the 2008 Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage.

BUSD enlisted search firm Leadership Associates to facilitate this year’s process. Community members could provide input at a public meeting and through a survey.

Stephens said he is eager to dive into the new position — and is looking forward to a shorter commute. He lives in Oakland with his family, and enjoys running on East Bay trails, composing guitar music and painting, in his minimal free time.

This article was updated shortly after publication to include a response from a Berkeley School Board member.

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...