The district’s superintendent of three years, Brent Stephens, announced he was leaving Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) this spring. Since then, the search for a successor led to one finalist, Enikia Ford Morthel, the deputy superintendent of instruction in the San Francisco school district. She was confirmed by the school board on May 18. The Jacket sat down with Ford Morthel to discuss her goals for BHS and the district in her new role, which she will begin July 1.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What would you like students to know about you?
I think, first and foremost, I want the students to know how excited I am to come and to work in this new capacity. I think you might’ve heard that I went to the University of California (UC) Berkeley, both for undergrad and grad, and I just think that there’s so much that’s amazing and special about Berkeley, as a city and as a district, so I’m excited to join and continue to be of service in this new capacity.
Particularly, one thing that really resonates with me about Berkeley, and in general something I believe in, is student voice and student agency. So I particularly want the high school students to know, and middle school students as well, that I’m super excited not just to be of service, but to also partner with them to realize the vision for the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) they want. And so a lot of opportunities to listen to students, to hear from students and to co-create with students is a part of who I am and what I do. And so I’m hoping that the students of Berkeley are active and engaged and are ready to do the work with me, but also to give me a lot of feedback.
I’m going to start off with a listening and learning campaign. The first 90 days will be just talking to a number of folks. And I want to make sure that, while it can’t all be students, some of that number is going to be students. I’m looking forward to just hearing about the experience of students. I’ve heard a lot from the grown-ups, families, staff members, and I want to hear from students as well.
For students who want to talk to you and make their voice heard, what can they do? How can they get into that “listen and learn” phase?
I’m still kind of learning the culture and ways of being at Berkeley. I want to get back to you on that one. What I anticipate, though, is that there’s probably going to be more group settings, because there are so many students in Berkeley. So, if there are existing structures, or clubs, or groups of students that are going to be meeting, then I would love to try as much as possible to join those. Otherwise, I anticipate setting some of those up for students. The one-off, individual emails might become overwhelming, and I don’t want to feel unresponsive to students. So what I’m going to do is work with the team at the district office, maybe work with you all, to figure out what are some good days, times, and places, and actually send those out to students and kind of get their feedback and input that way. And I think I would do some virtual meetings, but some in-person as well.
I might take advantage of the fact there are a lot of staff that are working during the summer months and do those folks first, and then prioritize the students in late July, early August.
But still, if there are venues or student convenings that you know about, formal or informal, that are happening over the summer or anytime over the next couple of weeks, then share those with me as well, and I’ll try to participate as much as I can. I’m doing that stuff, you’ll see, I’m transitioning time, trying to be respectful to the commitment that I’ve made.
What made you want to work in BUSD?
My whole career — and I’ve been in a number of capacities in a number of districts — I’ve been a big believer in social justice and activism. My whole “why” is about access and equity, and disrupting a lot of what I think is the current reality of traditional public schools and school in general. I don’t necessarily believe that public education was set up to serve every student, that it was intended to provide excellent equity and engagement like Berkeley says it does to every student.
So, I guess my role — in collaboration with a whole bunch of other folks — is to make that so. I say make it so because, again, it wasn’t the intention of the system. So if you just let the system be, it’s going to do what it’s been doing. So I see it as my role and a little bit of my calling to actively push on the system and be a part of the system from the inside, and agitate from the inside, to really make sure that as many students as possible — I call students babies, I’ll tell you that now. And I say babies without any disrespect because I believe that every student is somebody’s baby. I’ve seen the adultification of students in ways that are harmful and oftentimes are along racial and gender lines. So, you’re going to hear me say babies and it’s not because I don’t respect you. But, you’re somebody’s baby and because as your principal, your teacher, or in this case your superintendent, I care for you and engage with you as if you were my own. But, I really feel it is my role to make it happen, and Berkeley is a place where I know that matters.
Berkeley is a place that has been on the cutting edge of equity, issues around inclusion, and issues around antiracism, et cetera. This is what Berkeley is known for. And at the same time, it’s something that Berkeley, like many other places, can struggle with. So I chose Berkeley, one because a lot of what Berkeley is about resonates with what I’m about. But, to be honest, it’s also because I think that Berkeley has so many things in place that positions it to actually do that equity work.
Berkeley is one of the few places where the diversity is actually reflected in the schools that are in the community. You see a lot of districts in other places where it might be a very richly diverse city, and then you go to the schools and you’re like what? These kids go here, these kids go there. It’s also a district that has a lot of experience with its teaching staff and a lot of structures and systems that I think sets it up to do what it says it wants to do. So I want to be part of that. Berkeley raised me, in some ways, as a social justice leader. I got my undergrad, my grad, my teaching credential, and my master’s from UC Berkeley. So I think that there are ways in which I want to participate differently and give back to the Berkeley community.
As you mentioned, a large part of your mission, and BUSD’s, is equity. Do you have opinions on or solutions to programs in BUSD that are viewed as promoting segregation and being inequitable, such as the middle school reassignment process and small schools at BHS?
I know that I have learned enough to know that my opinions stay where they are right now because there is so much that I need to learn. And so, I know cursory information about those different things from what I’ve read. But, what I want to do is actually talk to folks, and listen, and observe, and see what the expenses are and look at the data that says who goes where and how decisions are made. I want to really gauge who is being impacted by the decision or a part of making the decision to understand their why, to understand their experiences. And then from there, in partnership with some other folks, think about what’s the best solution.
In some ways there are inequities that are very similar everywhere, but you always have to be respectful to the context of the place and what’s happening and be respectful to the fact that there has probably been lots of work pre-you, that has been tried successfully and maybe not so successfully. So my strategy is always to come in and listen and not make assumptions that I know what that is or I know how to fix it, because that’s never turned out right. So I want to use those first 90 days and then the days and months after that to really understand those issues and then to make some informed decisions about how I might be able to address them.
Being really honest with you all, one of things I say is that inequities and all the -isms are so deeply entrenched in our system and society that I never want to come in and make folks think I’m going to do x, y, z and then they are gone. That’s a fake and a false assumption or expectation. What I believe is that we have to continue to chisel at things to address them, and that we definitely have to do so with a sense of urgency because the babies can’t wait. That’s what I say. You all can’t wait. You all deserve a learned experience that’s engaging, inclusive, et cetera. And at the same time, a level of strategy and thoughtfulness so that we don’t cause more harm or recreate things inadvertently. And so I’m really conscious of the fact that inequity is so deep in who we are and our fabric of society and as a system, that I want to be respectful to the fact that there’s a whole bunch of folks before me who tried to make these changes. If it was that easy to change things, it would have been changed. And so I try to balance that tension of, “We gotta change things and we have to move with a level of urgency and persistence,” and, “We have to be respectful to how deeply entrenched this is, and be mindful that it’s gonna take some time to turn things around.”
Title IX and sexual assault have been signifigant issues in BUSD, specifiaclly at BHS. Do you have any plans to address these issues?
It’s gonna be that same answer because I don’t really know. I’m not fully versed on what the district has done in the past. Even in San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), as you know, in lots of places this is an issue. And students again began to have a sense of agency and voice, and know how to advocate in different and new ways. So, I want to go in and learn, but I also want to learn about what has been done, and not just come in and try something different, but to say, “Those are the things that have been done and have been tried. What of those things have worked and what hasn’t worked?” So that we’re not starting from scratch necessarily, but finding some ways to engage and continue with improvement, and get better if we can do it better, and then start fresh what we need to start fresh.
With Brent Stephens and Rubén Aurelio leaving the district, as well as staffing shortages in all schools this year, do you have ideas for how to improve teacher and staff retention?
One idea for sure is to understand the turnover. I can make assumptions as to why folks are leaving, and I can say it’s bigger than Berkeley. But, there is always a difference of opinions. The former superintendent Brent Stephens is making a transition, congratulations to him, and Rubén Aurelio is as well. And, at the same time, I’m looking at Berkeley like wow, a lot of folks are staying and committed, and have been there for a long time. So, I want to celebrate that and talk to those folks to figure out what it is that’s making them stay and what’s kept them at Berkeley for so long. And then understand what the information coming out about the folks that are leaving is.
I would say that one of the things I try to do regardless of where I am is really celebrate and rally folks around this shared why and this shared vision. Sometimes folks don’t see where they fit and how they’re essential and critical to making something happen. So I want folks — staff and educators and families — to understand that they are part of something bigger. That’s one strategy.
I want to make sure that I understand what folks’ needs are. You know, educators and principals, classroom teachers, all the folks — what does it look like to make sure that we have a system of support to not just bring them together to create networks and community, but also make sure that they have the resources and the capacity to do whatever it is we’re asking them to do? Because sometimes folks leave for that reason as well. I think my first step is to come in and find out why folks are leaving, but also do the part that’s oftentimes missed, that’s like for the folks who are staying, what is it about Berkeley that keeps you here and gets you excited about Berkeley?
How do you plan on listening to students, specifically BHS students and their desires?
The beauty about Berkeley is that there is one comprehensive high school. I want to know about the different student organizations and student activities. There’s definitely the part about formally coming in and talking to students and asking them questions, but then there’s also just the informal part of being in space and community with students. So I would say that there’s the official, like, “Oh the BSU or whatever is having an event, I’m going to come,” but there’s also going to be just me coming and sitting with you, not in any official capacity, and hearing about your experiences and observing the experiences that you have. With it being one high school, I can say … with honesty that I can be there frequently, as opposed to the 13 high schools that I had in San Francisco.
I think we would always want to do some periodic surveys. I don’t know if you guys have a student council or things like that, but I’m definitely going to be in close communication with the student leadership.
Do you have plans for how you want to work with everyone in the district? Specifically Principal Juan Raygoza for BHS, but also the school board and the teachers’ union for the whole district?
Again, trying to come in and understand the culture of Berkeley. I’ve been in three different districts and everyone has a unique culture. One of the things I’ve done across all of those is to, specifically with school leaders, have regular standing check-ins. That’s going to be an opportunity for me to stay in the loop and have a structure or protocol for how that goes. In terms of your principal, that’s my goal, to have a regular meeting. Similarly, just having a regular check-in with the board, board leadership in particular. I’m big on retreats and, you know, institutes. There’s a lot of business to be done, and this is serious business, but I think that it’s the kind of work that it is so critical you love, and it has to bring you joy and you have to trust the other folks that you’re doing the work with. So, you know, oftentimes trying to create space where we can just be in community, and it’s not a business meeting but a chance for folks to get to know each other. I have a couple structures that I’ve done in my other experiences that I’m open to bringing to Berkeley, if structures that do the same thing don’t already exist.
Our district has changed and suffered a bit during the pandemic. Do you have any plans in terms of how to bring people together and heal after that?
Those meetings that I just talked about — taking the opportunity to have folks just be in community. For families and students, definitely taking advantage of different community meetings, different advisory groups. Going and listening to them and getting to know them, but also introducing myself to them, hearing how they are doing post-pandemic — if we can even say that. So I would say I want to find space to celebrate and be in community, but I also want to join in spaces of celebration and community that already exist. There was the block party earlier, and to be in spaces like that with folks, using that time to hear their experiences — what they need and where it is appropriate and possible for the district to be a resource to address those needs, and where there are needs that are outside of the scope of the district.
I want to be a liaison, if you will, for those things as well. But I think when we went into the pandemic we realized what we’d known for forever, which is that humans need connections and relationships. And I think even pre-pandemic, some folks lost that and prioritized a whole bunch of other stuff. So I’m definitely looking forward to opportunities just to recreate that and enhance it where it’s already existing, and just get folks excited to be in community again. Because when we went into the pandemic there were so many folks that didn’t feel connected and felt that it was easier for them to be isolated. If we build community and connection prior to going into situations like that, we’re going to be more open to say we need help, to share our experiences, and to lean on each other in a way that feels safe and authentic.
Lack of transparency is one of the main things that BHS students have criticized in the district and the BHS administration. Do you have any plans for how to be more transparent with students and with the community overall?
Leveraging, of course, our webpage. My plan is to have a newsletter that goes out to site leaders. I do that in San Francisco, where they actually pull pieces and put that in their school newsletter. Of course, I plan to just be out and about in different stakeholder engagement sessions, and to be communicating and leveraging the board meeting times just to give some updates and share some things.
I think transparency is tricky. The reason why I say that is because folks have different definitions about what that means. Sometimes I think transparency has become more of a responsibility. So I will not share things with you prematurely. Because I’ve seen that cause harm, you know, because folks expect something. I will always tell the truth. I’ll tell you what I can do, what I can’t do, what I can say, what I can’t say. And to me, that is transparency. I know some folks think transparency means, “You tell me everything that I ask.” I have a different definition. So I think what’s going to be important for us as I work with the students and different student groups at Berkeley High, is to get really clear on a shared definition of what transparent means, and to be okay with the fact that there might be some things I can’t tell you now, but when I can share, I will share.
Our last question is, what do you hope to accomplish as superintendent?
We talked about the diversity of Berkeley and we talked about the ways in which the district and the city of Berkeley have really been about being champions of inclusion, antiracism, et cetera. And we also all agree that there continue to be persistent inequities. And so, for me, and I’m not going to give it a timeline, but my ultimate goal in Berkeley, and just in general, is to make that real and true for every student.
So when Berkeley’s tagline has, “Excellence, equity, engagement, and enrichment,” that stands out for me. And it’s nice to say we have a diverse student body, and it’s nice that we have diverse schools and that we are inclusive. But until we can say, with honesty, that equity, excellence, engagement, and enrichment is available and accessible to every student in our district, regardless of what they look like, where they come from, and what they sound like, then we haven’t accomplished it. So that’s my whole goal — to get us closer to that. And again, I’m really honest about how deeply entrenched this stuff is and how hard it is to change an entire system. But I want to be able to say that I was a part of Berkeley Unified getting that much closer to that being real. That there will be fewer students who are going to be able to identify inequities around the lines of race and class and language. It’s so predictable who doesn’t have access, and that is what bothers me. If we can even just make it randomized, we could probably rock with that. But predictability means that there’s something inherent in how we do business.
So I can do my part — to make inequities less predictable, to get rid of them ultimately. But to make it even less predictable along the lines of class and race and language and zip code, then I would feel successful. And if I can set this up so that it continues working, then I will be successful. That’s a broad stroke answer, though. That’s like Nikki’s big vision for life and leadership.