After a school year that saw the resignation of its top leader in the midst of a pandemic, the Sequoia Union High School District ushered in the academic year with more stability. The governing board hired Darnise Williams to head the district of about 9,000 students starting in July.
Williams previously led the Race and Equity Leadership Academy, a partnership between the Los Angeles Unified School District and the University of Southern California that provides over 100 school principals and principal supervisors with leadership tools, according to a district press release.
Williams' past roles include serving as a literacy coordinator, assistant principal, principal, principal supervisor, administrator of instruction and senior-level administrator.
Williams earned a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Southern California and a master's degree in educational administration from California State University at Dominguez Hills.
She signed a three-year contract with an annual base salary of $265,000 and up to $17,500 in relocation expenses.
Williams sat down with The Almanac over Zoom to discuss her background, her goals and what to expect this school year, the first one to be fully in person in two years.
How did you come to work in education?
I grew up in south Los Angeles. ... I was inspired by my grandmother. ... She happened to be a custodian for one of the schools and she would just collect things; they became her treasures. She set up a library in the home and taught me the classics, (such as) Mark Twain and Langston Hughes. She expected a level of excellence. She initially wanted to be a teacher, but she didn't become a teacher. … I became an English teacher at a school with 4,500 students and it was a joy teaching literacy to high school-aged kids and adults. She would go back to the story of Frederick Douglass, that if you learn to read you become a danger in a way. Once you are literate you understand the conditions by which you live, and you will no longer be satisfied under those conditions.
What has been the pandemic's impact on students?
For some of our students in distance learning, they were having to sit in front of a device for several hours and not being able to connect (to others). It brought to me a realization this is not normal (distance learning) and we may never return to what was normal was, but normal for everyone wasn't great. … I think about students who struggled prior to the pandemic. Not every student had support structures like I had with my grandmother. School is the safe haven; where they get their meals, social interaction, social-emotional support and feel protected. Some students did not get access to most rigorous platforms though (before the pandemic).
Students not only lost human connections but that connection of what was familiar: coming to school, graduation, prom. It was amplified when we (administers) visited campuses; you can see 10th graders while being on distance learning for almost a year of their high school careers who didn't know where their classes were. They had that excitement and tentativeness.
What motivated you to join the Sequoia district?
During the pandemic I realized you have to take certain risks and this is the time; I started the search. I looked for a place that could be close to familiar folks but in a different setting. I found that in this community. I did a lot of research in terms of their academic performance; it was high achieving. The programs, the partnerships with Stanford (University) and Cañada (College), were the things that drew me. There was an opportunity to serve a population of students who were at a different level; I want to help connect those learners to resources that could drive them to advance in their academic careers.
You said during a board meeting that you lost six family members to COVID-19.
It's a pain point for me. Like many families in our country, I was impacted on several levels during the pandemic. It brings me back to why I'm here (in the Sequoia district); I needed to disconnect from some of the loss. … I wanted a change in pace where my skill set would connect.
I looked at a nurse in tears who said, 'You have only 15 minutes to be with your loved one.' Prior to leaving, the nurse took my hand and said with tears in his eyes, 'I will not let him die alone.' It just amplified the trauma folks are experiencing and the pain attached to the pandemic. You want to connect with loved ones and you can't.
What are the greatest challenges facing the district this year and how will you tackle them?
Remaining open. We understand we're going to have (COVID-19) cases and our contact tracing. I want to make sure we keep our community safe. We have to make sure we have systems in place to identify if we have a case.