On April 14, the Sequoia Union High School District (SUHSD) announced at the Board of Trustees meeting that they’ve hired their new district superintendent, Dr. Darnise Williams. With ample background in education, Williams hopes to unite the community to work towards more equitable education for everyone in the district.
Williams is filling the vacant position left by former Superintendent Mary Streshly, who resigned on Sept. 14, citing family responsibilities, after receiving a no-confidence vote from the teacher’s union a month prior.
Since the start of the 2021 school year, Assistant Superintendent Crystal Leach stepped in as the interim superintendent, leading the district during a year challenged by distance learning. Selected following an extensive hiring process by the SUHSD Board of Trustees, expectations of the newly hired superintendent to lead the district forward are high.
“Dr. Williams brings a wealth of experience in challenging educational environments, serving the diverse needs of the highest achieving and highest expectation students alongside the most challenged and resource-constrained students,” said Alan Sarver, the president of the SUHSD Board of Trustees.
As with many school districts around the nation, Sequoia has maintained full or partial distance learning most of the year. According to Sarver, the focus for next year will be returning to full-time in-person learning with goals of pandemic recovery, student engagement, mental health, and student achievement.
Another priority centers around the district’s focus on equity. The district includes 9,021 students, eight schools, including charter and alternative schools, and a wide range of socioeconomic conditions across several communities. The district transitioned to holding the board of trustee elections based on voting by region to address diverse needs, and in the most recent school board elections, Shawneece Stevenson, the first person from Region E was elected.
“The role of superintendent for our district is incredibly complex and extends into every aspect of the operation of our large and diverse school district. The priority of the board was to find a superintendent who’s prepared to lead in all of these areas,” Sarver said.
The board followed an extensive 10-month process that used comprehensive community input to generate search criteria to begin interviews with 19 applicants, “Dr. Williams was able to tell us how her experiences had perfectly prepared her for SUHSD,” Sarver said.
Williams has over 25 years of experience in public education, including leading the Race and Equity Leadership Academy, a partnership between Los Angeles Unified School District and the University of Southern California. She earned a doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Southern California and a master’s in Educational Administration from California State University Dominguez Hills. She has held positions from administration to teaching English at middle and high schools in Los Angeles.
Williams is passionate about working together as a community in education and remarked: “This is a national opportunity for us to transition how we do school. Many families have gone through trauma, such as food insecurity and access to basic supports. Part of the vision is to make sure we are whole, and my initial goal is to ensure that basic needs are met so we can thrive together,” Williams said.
Trustee Stevenson described Williams’ energy as “electric” and affirmed her confidence that Williams would well represent her district.
“I believe she will connect with all nine communities along with living in North Fair Oaks, Redwood City, East Palo Alto, and Belle Haven [Region E],” Stevenson said.
Williams attributes her passion for education to her positive family influence in education, her diverse body of educational positions and roles, and her positive experiences in high school.
However, she credits her grandmother with being her original inspiration.
“My grandma was a custodian for the school, and she’d set up the library. She made reading so easy, and I learned that she wanted to be a teacher. She was my first teacher. Because of that, I wanted to become a teacher,” Williams said.
Teachers and students are hopeful for Williams’ leadership.
In the wake of the union vote of “no-confidence” for the past superintendent, the president of the Sequoia District Teachers Association (SDTA), Edith Salvatore, expressed her hope that Williams will bring her experience to work with the many constituents in the district, including the teacher’s union.
“I am looking forward to working with her to ensure that we strengthen those relationships and build a new trust as we continue to focus on providing the best possible climate and education for our students,” Salvatore said.
Sathvik Nori, a Sequoia High School senior and student trustee on the SUSHD school board, offered optimism on behalf of the students in the district.
“I am excited by the choice of Dr. Williams. I hope she can bring her experience from the LA Unified School district to address the unique challenges we have here, and I hope she will bring a new sense of innovation to our district in terms of how we deal with educating high schoolers,” Nori said.
As the superintendent’s duties include curriculum and instruction and budgets and funding, Dr. Williams’ leadership will be important in meeting students’ expectations.
Relocating from Southern California, Williams is excited to engage with the students in her new Sequoia community, explaining that she did thorough research in her decision to relocate to Northern California and was impressed by the many student programs.
“There are so many accomplishments here in this district. I want to be supportive of that work. I want to continue to provide the opportunities for all students to excel and challenge themselves,” Williams said.
Given the challenges that have faced the district, the pandemic, and the priorities of the board, and high hopes from teachers and students alike, Dr. Williams feels not only ready but excited about the job ahead.
“I want people to know I am very excited, and I look at not challenges but opportunities.
I come ready to listen, learn and collaborate,” Williams said.
Williams’s first day with SUHSD is July 1, for those eager to meet and learn more about her, SUHSD will host a meet & greet with Dr. Williams via Zoom (https://seq-org.zoom.us/j/94592111381) on May 20 at 5:00 p.m.