Taking Berkeley Public Schools to the Next Level

For Superintendent Donald Evans, it's all about energy and resilience.


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After being appointed in 2013, Evans went to every Berkeley public school and talked to principals, teachers, and students in order to understand the district’s needs.

Pat Mazzera

When Donald Evans first became superintendent of the Hayward Unified School District in 2011, he didn’t quite realize what he was getting into. He knew that Hayward Unified was one of the most troubled school districts in the region, but his years of experience had not fully prepared him for a job in which he was responsible for everything.

“I don’t care how close you’re sitting next to superintendent,” he said in a recent interview, “Until you step into that role, it’s a whole different ballgame.”

Evans, 54, is now the superintendent of the Berkeley Unified School District, and after having served two years leading Hayward schools, he’s more comfortable juggling the duties of a school district’s top chair. Indeed, Evans is considered an energetic rising star in Bay Area K-12 education.

On a recent morning, the walls of Evans’ office in Berkeley were lined with bulletin boards, and the only decorations were a portrait of President Barack Obama and a basketball hoop signed by students from his first teaching gig.

Evans grew up in Lewes, Delaware, a quaint beach community of summer homes and “200-year-old houses with plaques on them,” but where a small black community lived year round, he said. “There weren’t very many of us,” he recalled. “There was a couple streets where black families lived, and we were one of them.”

Evans was born into a family of educators—his mom was a preschool teacher and his uncle was a truancy officer at the high school that he would eventually attend. Although his neighborhood was relatively segregated from the rest of the town, the schools in Lewes were integrated.

However, Evans remembers his mother often disagreeing with early attempts to integrate classrooms. “I heard my mother say that we didn’t really integrate from integration,” he recalled. “When we went to a white school, it just felt like we were there, but I don’t think that anyone cared about us—we weren’t a priority.”

While studying at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, Evans took a multicultural education class. He eventually realized that his calling was teaching. His first class was teaching fifth grade at Silver Gate Elementary in San Diego. “I had so much fun,” he recalled. “I don’t know who cried more, myself or my kids, when I left in June.” A basketball hoop signed by one of his classes from Silver Gate hangs in his Berkeley office.

After serving as a teacher for gifted children, Evans moved to Palo Alto, where he took over as principal of an East Palo Alto charter school, turning it into the highest performing school in the Ravenswood school district after only two years. He then became the principal of Burckhalter Elementary in Oakland, and later an area superintendent for Oakland’s public elementary schools.

However, Evans explained that in Oakland, he mainly oversaw the more privileged hills schools and not those in Oakland’s underserved flatlands. So he decided to take a job in Compton schools in Southern California as an associate superintendent, where he witnessed the magic of student “resilience” in an area plagued by gang violence.

“I saw teachers looking at their experiences and validate what they’re experiencing,” he said. “That’s the key to closing achievement gap, taking what these kids come into class with and helping them turn it into wonderful things.”

Yet Evans said he also experienced the “flip side” of working in Compton. “I went to so many funerals,” he said, referring to students who had been victims of gang violence. “I just couldn’t go to another funeral.”

He described a time when a straight-A, African-American student was shot before class in front of a high school near his office. “His mom and dad were both at home, worked really hard, and did not know he was in a gang—no one knew,” Evans said. “What took me out was that they didn’t have the decency to cover the body in front of school. The kids weren’t even fazed. That was the last straw for me.”

In November 2011, after receiving his doctorate from UC Berkeley, Evans took over as superintendent of Hayward Unified, where he received a lesson in leadership and politics. Evans said that his attempts to improve the long-troubled school district were dogged by “distractions.” While trying to tackle major issues facing the district—such as the lack of parent engagement and the struggles of English-language learners—he dealt with an often polarized and dysfunctional school board. With increasing frustration in Hayward, Evans set his sights on Berkeley, which was searching to replace then-Superintendent Bill Huyett, who was stepping down.

“I left Hayward because I felt limited in terms of what I could do and achieve,” Evans said. “I knew Berkeley was further ahead in what it was trying to do—it had a way of identifying the issues and directions,” he added. “In Hayward, there was a lot of groundwork that needed to be done to get us to a point where we could actually focus.”

Beatriz Leyva-Cutler, president of the Berkeley school board, remembers when Evans interviewed for the job three years ago. “When he came in for the interview, he was practically bouncing off the walls,” she said. “No one else came in with that energy. From the beginning, he showed how much he wanted to be in Berkeley. To this day, he’s still very resilient.”

After being appointed in 2013, Evans went to every school and talked to principals, teachers, and students in order to understand the district’s needs. He discovered that Berkeley schools had varying methods of teaching and meting out discipline, as well as disparities in the amount and quality of technology in classrooms. Going into his fourth year, Evans is focused on codifying best practices that he has found in each school through professional development programs for teachers, emphasizing classroom equity, and keeping “fidelity to the curriculum,” he said.

“There were a lot of great things happening in each school, but they were too siloed,” Evans said. “So how do we break down those silos?”

Leyva-Cutler said that Evans has been making his mark by building infrastructure that the school district needs to implement the Common Core standards—but more importantly to close its historically wide achievement gap, especially as the school district has begun to receive new funding from the statewide Local Control Formula Funding system, which is aimed at helping underprivileged students.

“We’ve been building the car as we’ve been driving it,” Leyva-Cutler. “Now that the car is officially built, hopefully now we can drive ahead.”

This report appears in the September edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

2016-08-29 10:49 AM

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