Photo by Briana Loewinsohn.
Stephen Phelps, a man who devoted himself to raising the bar for Catholic education in the Bay Area for 45 years, died Dec. 26 — on the Feast of St. Stephen — at the age of 73 after suffering two heart attacks following a heart procedure. He is survived by his wife, Susan; his children Amy ‘97 and Chris; and Amy’s son Boston.
In a letter to the Bishop O’Dowd High School community where Steve served as President since 2005, Principal James Childs noted that the news of Dr. Phelps’ death was both “abrupt and shocking, especially so because of the vitality that Steve always embodied. His care for people and palpable optimism were characteristics that drew folks to O’Dowd and that have positively impacted so many faculty, staff, students, families, volunteers, friends and advocates for O’Dowd over the years of his rich tenure. Moreover, I am aware of the infectious nature of Steve’s inquisitive mind and how learning was always a part of his every day. He was teacher, coach, advocate, and friend to numerous folks throughout his extensive career.... I am profoundly without words at the immensity of this loss.”
In his long career, Dr. Phelps focused on issues of diversity, professional development and sustainability. He began by spending the early part of his career at Hunters Point and in the Fillmore District as a recreation director. His colleagues later nicknamed him the White Shadow after a popular TV show that featured a blonde coach who worked with African American teens — something that defined Steve’s years of service.
He encouraged some of his best students to apply to SI and other academically strong high schools, and he insisted that SI offer services to students from these neighborhoods to help them survive in a culture very different from their own while also helping students preserve their racial identities. “SI wisely agreed,” said Steve in a 2003 interview.
He took a full-time job at SI in 1972 as a social science teacher and coach. In 1973, he started SI Uplift, a summer school program designed to improve diversity at SI; that program over the years evolved into Summer Prep and then the Magis Program. These efforts became a model for similar ventures in the city, including Aim High and Summerbridge.
He also hired a dozen inner-city high school students to serve as teacher aides and afternoon counselors for the Uplift Program, paying them with Neighborhood Youth Corp funds. “Some of these aides were African-American SI students I had sent there in previous years. This program and the growing number of African-American students at SI gave SI street cred in the African-American community, which at that time was almost 15 percent of the city’s population.”
SI supported this program by sending scholastics from provinces throughout the U.S. to teach in Uplift, and Steve even learned how to drive the school bus “because I needed a bus for the summer and had no driver.”
Dr. Phelps helped SI become more diverse by visiting Catholic and public primary schools that had a high percentage of minority students and by encouraging students to apply to SI. He also served as moderator of SI’s Black Students’ Union after it was launched in the early ‘70s, and he coached a BSU basketball team that competed in the CYO Teenage Leagues. A year later, two freshmen approached him looking to form their own organization — the Asian Students Coalition (ASC). Dr. Phelps agreed to serve as moderator and soon found himself advising 50 students who modeled their club along the same lines as the BSU.
He also trained himself to become a stellar educator and spent his sabbatical in 1994 visiting schools in the U.S. looking for examples of programs and practices that would support the SI faculty in meeting the needs of a new generation of students.
He discovered a rich depository of literature and coursework in the area of professional development, and he brought back to SI the idea of starting a professional development office. In 1995 Principal Steve Nejasmich asked him to do just that and continue to teach two psychology classes to seniors.
“We weren’t a school in crisis,” said Dr. Phelps, who served as SI’s first director of professional development and later as assistant principal for professional development. “We were an excellent school that could be better.” He first determined what sorts of credentials and degrees the faculty had, and he then encouraged young teachers to earn credentials and advanced degrees that would deepen their expertise in curriculum and instruction. He worked with USF and San Francisco State University to offer a number of credential and master’s classes at SI, and many teachers — from SI and other Catholic high schools — enrolled and went on to earn advanced degrees thanks to those evening and Saturday classes.
He also set up workshops to train SI faculty in the best ways to use technology in their classrooms, and he helped develop the Excellence in Teaching program. He organized Skillful Teacher classes and established a summer grant program for teachers working collaboratively to develop new and relevant curriculum.
He worked with representatives from the Jesuit Secondary Education Association (now called the Jesuit Schools Network) to bring leadership training seminars and academies to SI, and he arranged for dozens of professional workshops for teachers to attend both on and off campus. In short, he supported the SI teachers in their quest to learn more about their craft and to excel.
In the early 2000s, SI’s math department, at the request of the Archdiocese, began teaching Algebra 1 to eighth graders. At Steve’s request, the SI math department designed and presented two summer workshops for eighth grade teachers. Schools that sent their teachers to SI have had a significant increase in placement of their students into SI’s freshman honors class over those schools that did not.
Shortly before leaving SI in 2005, Steve noted that the school’s professional development efforts “contributed to a culture at SI where people are eager to learn, from the president to the youngest teacher. In years past, some teachers may have thought they knew it all. Now we’re learning so much that we don’t even question the process. It’s part of the culture. The process has both improved our relationship with other schools and given SI a national reputation for excellence. Administrators from all over the country come here because we have become a school that seeks both to learn from others and to share freely.”
Others took notice, too, including Today’s Catholic Teacher magazine, which in 2004 honored SI as one of 12 schools nationwide for excellence and innovation in education. The magazine praised SI for “embarking on a unique approach to forming a school that learns,” for “rooting professional growth in every aspect of school culture,” and for “learning from the best models available, both locally and nationally.” Steve was also individually honored by the National Catholic Educational Association, which gave him its Secondary School Department Award, citing his “significant contribution to American Catholic secondary education.”
Steve also found success on the court as a basketball referee known for the fairness of his calls and as an exemplary coach in the early days of coeducation for the girls’ basketball team, which won its first CCS championship under his leadership.
In 2005, Steve left SI to serve as president of Oakland’s Bishop O’Dowd High School, which at the time was struggling with enrollment and fund-raising. He quickly turned the school around and made it into one of the finest Catholic schools in the East Bay.
He devoted much of his time to issues of sustainability and raised funds to build O’Dowd’s state-of-the-art Center for Environmental Studies, a 5,000-square-foot LEED-Platinum-Certified educational facility dedicated to cultivating the next generation of environmental and sustainability leaders, and supported the school’s Living Lab — a four-acre certified wildlife habitat and outdoor classroom committed to reconnecting students with the natural world. Once again, his efforts were recognized, this time in 2016 when the school received a U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School award. Steve flew to Washington, D.C., that year to attend a ceremony held at the U.S. Department of Commerce honoring the winners. That year, O’Dowd was the only Catholic school to receive the award among 47 schools and 15 districts recognized for their exemplary efforts to reduce environmental impacts and costs, promote better health and ensure effective environmental education.
This past year, he put the finishing touches on a deal to purchase 20 acres of adjacent water district land and was working on an updated Master Plan that lays out a framework for creating a sustainable 21st century school that prioritizes adaptability and sustainability, drives student discovery, demonstrates stewardship of the land and serves as a community resource.
In his dozen years at the helm of Bishop O’Dowd, he also raised funds to renovate every classroom and improve marketing and admissions efforts. He instituted a 1-to-1 laptop program and a mentoring program for at-risk students, developed a master site-plan for the campus, and expanded the budget for professional development. He also offered innovative solutions for supporting teachers as they revised their courses and started using new technologies, and he connected students to professionals in the community.
Steve’s friends and colleagues know that his greatest contribution to Catholic education was the example he set for others. He was a consummate learner, ever reading as well as attending and presenting at conferences so that the decisions he made would be based on the latest research. He never rested on his laurels but always encouraged others to take one more step to improve — all for the sake of the students.
Those touring SI or O’Dowd with him saw his concern for the students, as he knew nearly all by name as well as the circumstances of their lives. He would stop and chat with teens to let them know that he cared for them as individuals. That concern for the student as well as the institution was the lasting gift he gave to Catholic education.
Jerome Williams ‘75, one of Steve’s former students and an early member of the BSU, noted that “Steve Phelps worked to augment the life of the entire person. If they needed food he would make sure they were fed. If a child needed academic assistance he would tutor. If emotional support was required, he offered his heart. If we ever wonder how to live a life that is ‘for the greater glory of God and the salvation of humanity,’ look at the life of Dr. Phelps.”
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