Brent Stephens. Courtesy: Stephens

After three years leading the Berkeley Unified School District, Superintendent Brent Stephens has announced he will step down from his post at the end of the school year.

Stephens said he doesn’t know what’s next for him, only that he wants to spend more time with his family.

“I have a daughter who’s rapidly approaching college-age and a wife I haven’t spent a lot of time with over the last three years,” Stephens told Berkeleyside Thursday morning. “This decision is really a personal one. It’s about prioritizing family and thinking about the value of time, having not had a lot for a few years.”

Stephens, who took over from Donald Evans in July 2019, is leaving at the end of a three-year contract, he announced in an email to the district community late Wednesday afternoon. Stephens said he made his decision before the school board had begun discussions about whether to renew his contract.

The pandemic began eight months after Stephens started at BUSD and “almost completely defined [his] time in the district,” he wrote in the email.

Stephens oversaw a painful period of school closure that drew heated criticism from some families. But this year, the district has successfully kept schools open throughout the delta and omicron surges, employing strategies like modified quarantine and launching a massive testing operation, while other school districts have been forced to close due to staffing shortages or student and teacher sick-outs.

By the end of his tenure, Stephens will have stamped his name on a number of new initiatives, including plans to incorporate ethnic studies and eco-literacy into the curriculum for all students, as well as more funds devoted to Longfellow Middle School. And before the year’s end, the school board will vote on whether or not to change the district’s middle school enrollment policy.

He was also confronted with student walkouts and multiple lawsuits over the district’s mishandling of sexual assault, including two against former chemistry teacher Matthew Bissell. Stephens reported Bissell to California’s commission on teacher credentialing, but signed a gag order promising to stay silent about his alleged misconduct to potential employers. Bissell quietly resigned at the end of the 2020-21 school year. In response to pressure from student and parent advocates, the school district set in motion plans to improve the Title IX office and the climate around sexual harassment on campus.

School Board President Ka’Dijah Brown said Stephens will be best remembered for his leadership through the pandemic, what Brown called “the most challenging time of public education.” “He has done so with grace, vision, consistent communication, and a steadfast commitment to keeping our community safe, including students, staff and families,” Brown wrote in a statement.

Stephens is one of many superintendents across the country who will not be returning to their jobs. The job has a typical turnover rate of about five to six years, and about 15% of superintendents leave their jobs each year, according to a survey by the American Association of School Administrators. Last year, the percentage of superintendents leaving their jobs rose to 25%.

School leaders have borne a great deal of responsibility, community tension, and frustration during the pandemic, Stephens said.

“Those things add up. I certainly have felt them,” he said, describing the “emotional fatigue” that he imagines is contributing to higher turnover among superintendents.

One week after the pandemic shuttered Berkeley schools, Stephens said that he broke down in tears over the harm children would endure during distance learning. “I wept, and I wept for a long time, just at what I was coming to understand as the full negative impact of the pandemic on the community,” he said.

Reflecting back on the decision to close schools, Stephens said the choice was made “without the scientific expertise to understand the community health ramifications of the pandemic,” nor an understanding of “how hard it would be to open them again.”

“Districts, in my view, were pushed into the creation of a program that denied young people all the fundamental aspects of their educational experience,” Stephens said. “I recognized at that point, that distance learning was going to be a very poor facsimile for the experiences students have on campuses.”

As schools remained largely closed over the next year, Stephens admitted that “fear” was the biggest barrier to reopening. Since then, even though the understanding of the science has improved, educators faced what Stephens characterized as an “unresolvable tension between education and safety.”

The next superintendent, Stephens said, will have to strike a precarious balance between “efforts to heal after the pandemic” and “efforts to address the inequities in the school district.”

For now, Stephens said he is left with a feeling of gratitude for “having been enriched by the Berkeley community” — the expertise, commitment to a diverse range of issues, and distinctly progressive bent of its citizens — and is focused on the “blessings that befell him” instead of the challenges he faced.

Brown said she did not yet have details about what the search for the next superintendent will look like. But she said the next superintendent will reflect Berkeley’s core values:

“What I can tell you is that Berkeley has a long-standing set of values. These values include inclusiveness, equity, and overall a deep desire to ensure that our students are receiving the best education possible,” Brown said. “We will, of course, look for someone who holds those values true to them.” 

Read the full text of Stephens’ email to the school community:

Dear BUSD Community –

I write to you today with personal news. 

After a great deal of reflection with my family and close friends, I have decided that I will not seek to extend my current contract as Superintendent of Berkeley Unified School District beyond June 30th of this year. It has been an honor to work beside so many remarkable educators, parents, community and City partners, and students. Berkeley is a singular place – smart, idealistic, passionate, and progressive – and I am deeply enriched from being by your side during this exceptional time. 

I feel a deep sense of gratitude to the BUSD Board of Education for its partnership, expertise, and guidance during this three year period. Our Board is composed of exceptional community leaders; their thoughtful, compassionate service during the pandemic has been of such value to our community – and to me personally.

To the members of the District’s Cabinet and central office team, our classified staff, teachers, and principals, I can only say that I have been humbled to work with you. Your sacrifices during the pandemic may never be fully known or recognized, but you are making a tremendous difference in the lives of our students and families.

During the three years since I joined the BUSD team, the Board, our staff, partners, and community have so many accomplishments to be proud of. Throughout the pandemic, which almost completely defined my time in the district, we were steadily guided by the principle of equity. As we confronted the first frightening wave of COVID, our community developed many unique and innovative ways to support our students and families. The Ed Hub, an inspiring partnership between the district and the Berkeley Public Schools Fund, brought meals, rent assistance, mental health supports, and academic support to families across the community. Through a rich ongoing partnership with the City of Berkeley, we have provided vaccines to hundreds of staff and students. We were among the very few districts to fully re-open our elementary schools last year. This year, we have developed a “gold standard” approach to COVID testing and contact tracing.

Our accomplishments have not been restricted to the pandemic. During this three-year period, a coalition of community partners supported us to pass a new $380 million school construction bond, and the community overwhelmingly approved the Berkeley Educator Recruitment and Retention Act. This increased salaries for our staff, is supporting the recruitment and retention of teachers of color, and complements BSEP, our long-running measure that supports small class size, arts, music, libraries, counseling, and enrichment.

In the last three years, we have made significant gains in the areas of educational equity. Our work with the Board to implement the Black Lives Matter, Latinx, and AAPI resolutions has brought an exciting array of partnerships and programs and galvanized the district’s attention to our African American, Latinx, and AAPI students and families. We have made deep investments in early literacy supports for students with phonological processing challenges, bolstered Special Education staffing and reduced out-of-district placements, while launching the development of a K-12 Ethnic Studies curriculum. Because of our openness to student activism, we have greatly reinforced our programs to prevent and respond to sexual harassment. We will be among the first districts to invest resources in an Eco-Literacy curriculum; and Longfellow Middle School enjoys excellent new leadership, an exciting seven-period day, and innovative new programs.

In very recent news, we just have been awarded millions in new grants to bolster mental health support for students next year, and to play a role in the development of a new statewide Native American Studies curriculum. 

We can all take pride in the great strides we’ve taken to improve our school facilities during this three year period. We have secured millions in funding for the development of housing for our employees. We quickly and effectively collaborated with the Oxford Elementary School community to move the school to our West Campus facility after a 2019 seismological report indicated the school was significantly at-risk for landslide after an earthquake. In the coming years, Longfellow will benefit from more than $10 million in new upgrades.

Behind the scenes, our teams in Business Services, Human Resources, and Technology have navigated a major student information system conversion. We are also replacing an outdated business enterprise system, and have instituted a range of new electronic payroll procedures. 

I am especially grateful to our four remarkable labor partners: the Berkeley Council of Classified Employees, the Berkeley Federation of Teachers; Local 21, and the Union of Berkeley Administrators. Each of these unions is led by dedicated individuals, and my close work with each of them has been personally very meaningful.

I want to offer my personal thanks to every member of Latinxs Unidos, AAPI Leadership, and the leaders of PCAD for their courage, advocacy, and insights. With every fiber of my being, I believe that equity and inclusion – as it is articulated by our community – is our shared path forward.

Our young people, and every one of us, have worked hard to get to this moment. As Omicron recedes and we all look forward to eased restrictions, I wish for every member of our community many opportunities for peace and healing. This is a moment for listening to one another, reconnection, and justified optimism. 

Thank you for your support.

Brent Stephens
Berkeley Unified School District

Read the full text of Brown’s email about Stephens’ resignation:

Dear Berkeley Unified School District, 

On behalf of the entire District, I am writing to thank Dr. Brent Stephens for his service as Superintendent of the Berkeley Unified School District. We in BUSD are grateful for the leadership that Dr. Stephens has exemplified while leading us through a global pandemic that challenged public education like no other time in history. He has done so with grace, vision, consistent communication, and a steadfast commitment to keeping our community safe, including students, staff and families. 

Under Dr. Stephens’ leadership and in collaboration with the Board of Education, his outstanding Cabinet and District staff, our incredible teachers and classified employees, our resilient students and families and our committed community partners, he has also embarked on a number of critical instructional and programmatic initiatives designed to further our educational mission. As many of you are aware, this is an unprecedented and trying time in education. We are grateful to have benefited from Dr. Stephens’ leadership in these past three years, and applaud him for all of the accomplishments we’ve achieved as a District.  

We are not saying goodbye just yet. We still have a lot of exciting work to do this semester and we look forward to ending this academic year strong. In the next coming weeks, the Board will discuss and determine its next steps in the search for our Superintendent’s successor. In the meantime, please join me in thanking Dr. Stephens and wishing him all the best on his next journey.

Sincere Regards,

Ka’Dijah A. Brown
Berkeley Unified School District Board of Education

This story was originally published on Feb. 9 and updated on Feb. 10.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...