Equity at the Forefront: Berkeley Unified’s New Director of Equity, Achievement & Belonging

At the beginning of every new school year, there are always fresh faces on our campuses. This year, Berkeley Unified School District has brought on board the first Director of Equity, Achievement and Belonging, Mathew Espinosa, Ed.D. Espinosa comes to Berkeley Unified after spending the last four years in Sacramento’s Elk Grove Unified, where he was their first Director of Equity. There, he built the program from the ground up in a district of over 63,000 students. 

The Berkeley Public Schools Fund caught up recently with Espinosa to talk about his roots, his education, his work, and his vision for Berkeley.

“I knew I wanted to be a teacher since the first grade. I found school was a safe space, a place where I felt stimulated to learn and explore things,” explains Espinosa, who grew up in Sacramento. “I was the youngest in my family with way older siblings, so as a young kid, I was always hanging around older folks. I didn’t want to hang around kids talking about kid stuff. I remember spending a lot of time with my teachers.” This passion for education led Espinosa down a path of excelling at school with the desire to one day become an elementary classroom teacher. He pursued his dreams by enrolling at Vanderbilt University, one of the top-tier schools in the nation for pursuing a degree in education.

As Espinosa studied as an Elementary Education and Spanish major, he found his education to be deeply rooted in research for educators. He developed his proficiency in Spanish at the university, sensing that it would get him in touch with Mexican heritage. “My experience as a researcher was coming to terms with who I was, because who we are, our own identities, influence how we go about our daily lives and work. As someone that was looking to advocate for folks of color, especially immigrant folks like my Filipino grandfather, and my Mexican grandparents, I felt that Vanderbilt was helping me become super prepared.” 

After graduating from Vanderbilt, Espinosa took a semester to move to Honolulu, Hawaii and start to learn Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines. He then was accepted into graduate school to get a Master of Arts in Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaii Manoa. Learning to speak new languages really shaped how Espinosa reflected on his own self, “Growing up I didn’t feel very Filipino, or Mexican either. One of my biggest discoveries was connecting to those languages – Spanish and Tagalog – and that gave me an entry point to connecting to my heritage.” 

Upon completion of his Masters degree, Espinosa was primed to begin his career in public education and came back to California. He worked as a classroom teacher for two years in San Diego Unified and then four years in San Jose Unified as a classroom teacher, a Migrant Education teacher in English Language Arts and English Language Development, and an English Learner Instructional Coach. 

One year, he taught math on Saturdays to 4th and 5th graders who were children of migrant workers in the district. “As a teacher, I felt my education was well rounded in research, but one thing we never talked about was race or language. It wasn’t a focus because I was at research institutions that were color-blind to instruction in education. It left me underprepared to serve the kids I wanted to serve in the first place.” 

In 2014, after teaching six years in public schools, Espinosa began to work for the Santa Clara County Office of Education as a Multilingual Education Services Coordinator. There he administered professional development for the instruction of English learners and supported initiatives that related to English learners, world language instruction, and bilingual programs. During this time, he also worked as a Theater Instructor at San Jose’s Teatro Vision, where he led a program that inspired students of all ages to find their voice, while building the self-confidence and initiative to take on leadership roles in their community. 

In August 2018, Espinosa decided to further his education and began to pursue a doctorate from San Francisco State University. In that same year, he relocated back to his hometown of Sacramento to take on the newly formed position of Director of Equity at Elk Grove Unified School District. There, he started to build the department with the goals of implementing student-centered support, committing to opportunity and access, and recognizing the importance of heritage in relation to the diversity of life experiences. Three years later, Espinosa finished his studies and received his Doctorate of Education in Educational Leadership for Social Justice. 

A New Equity Chapter for Berkeley 

When Berkeley Unified created the position of Director of Equity, Achievement and Belonging, Espinosa was initially attracted by Berkeley’s historical reputation as a community focused on social justice. After his interview with BUSD’s Superintendent Enikia Ford Morthel, his mind was quickly made up, “The reason I accepted this position was because I knew that her perspective was that even though we are the department that is at the forefront leading and guiding equity work, in the end, it’s the shared responsibility of everyone – from her to all the other departments, schools, and community. And that this was going to be a priority, not a side thing.”

A big part of Espinosa’s work will be to establish the new department’s position in the district. “One of the biggest pieces I see as my vision, especially for the first year, is to build some coherent momentum around what it means to do equity work in the district. One of the things to get to true equity work is that it can’t be a bunch of disparate initiatives. There has to be some underlying, coherent, and coordinated commitment made.” Another component to Espinosa’s approach is his dedication to student perspectives in relation to equity work. “Student voice for me is the most critical, in addition to family. A lot of times we focus on getting the families perspective, which is critical as well. Let’s not overlook our students and their input, influence, and agency in the process.”

The Berkeley Public Schools Fund looks forward to the systems that Espinosa will be a part of establishing, the community that he will take part in creating, and the outcomes of having equity work being central to the approach of achievement in the district.