When Brent C. Jones arrived at Roosevelt High School two weeks ago, he entered as the superintendent of the state’s largest school district — and quickly assumed the role of a student. 

In a music class, he took a seat in the back row as guest musician Dre Anderson asked students to flip their smartphones into selfie mode and bust a rhyme to match a beat. Game to be part of the action, Jones held up his phone and played along. 

It’s the way he rolls. When Jones enters a room, his presence grabs people’s attention, but the self-described introvert often ducks out of the spotlight to sit with students and ask them what they’re working on. He thrives in one-on-one conversations, and is careful to avoid disrupting class on his weekly tours of the city’s schools. 

“I’m here as a learner,” Jones said.

The city’s third African American superintendent, Jones, 55, grew up in Mount Baker and graduated from Franklin High School in 1985. Thirty-seven years later, he finds himself leading Seattle Public Schools through the pandemic recovery, budget shortfalls, dropping enrollment and controversies over masking.

Jones didn’t seek out the job, considered one of the toughest public service jobs in the city. He said he was called upon by community members who thought he could lead Seattle Schools. And he answered the call.

“I wouldn’t say I enjoy the job necessarily, but it’s a fulfilling role,” Jones said. ”I feel it’s a calling, it’s a service to a community — both the education community and the Seattle community — that I honor and I respect.”

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He’s a marked change from his predecessor, Denise Juneau, a politician who previously served as superintendent for the state of Montana and also ran for a U.S. House seat there. Jones became interim superintendent in May after Juneau resigned two months shy of the end of her contract. Jones’ contract stipulated that he would only serve for one year and would not be a candidate for the permanent job, but his name kept coming up.

Community members and city leaders, including Mayor Bruce Harrell, recommended Jones be hired permanently. The School Board listened, despite getting some criticism for not doing a robust national search.

“He has modeled the kind of life that I want young students to be able to see,” Harrell said in a phone interview. “He wasn’t a star athlete, per se, or the most popular person in huge crowds. He’s the kind of person who always studied, worked hard and earned what he received in all the years I’ve known him.”

Harrell said he met Jones at the University of Washington through Alpha Phi Alpha, the nation’s first African American fraternity. Jones brings institutional knowledge of the community, said Harrell, and has an understanding of the city’s political dynamic, which has been an issue in the past with other superintendents who had to learn on the job.

Jones has already faced criticism and scrutiny. Within a few weeks of being named superintendent on March 11, two groups held rallies in support of masking at district headquarters.

The newly formed Seattle Student Union, a student-led advocacy group, organized a rally demanding mask requirements be reinstated. The Seattle Education Association also demonstrated after releasing a scathing statement when Jones announced masks would be optional in early March. The statement accused the district of violating its memorandum of understanding and said the district had promised to bargain the mask mandate. 

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Jones said he and district administrators had conversations with SEA about making masks optional, but Gov. Jay Inslee’s decision to end mask requirements came sooner than planned, and the accelerated timeline may have been a shock to the union. 

“I’m not going to say who was right and who was wrong in this, but I am going to say that we had been in dialogue,” Jones said. “I’ve always been really respectful of bargaining.” 

Jones, who has held multiple human resources positions including at SPS, is experienced in working with labor unions. However, this was the first time a labor disagreement he’s dealt with has played out in the public eye, with the frustration squarely aimed at him.

But he’s not fazed. 

“I’ve treated people in a fair manner all the way through my career,” Jones said. “There’s a diversity of folks who know me and they know my work. They know my values and where my heart is. I believe I was ready to step into a public space and not have worries about untruths being told about me that I couldn’t refute.”

A focus on equity

One day in late March, Jones headed to Greenwood Elementary School in Greenwood. He wore a black suit and mask. 

There, he met a fifth-grade student who was named the school’s inclusion ambassador, and vigorously jotted down notes. He asked her what she and other students talk about during their meetings. She then asked him what’s needed at a school for a welcoming environment. Instead of giving his own answer, Jones asked her what would make other students feel welcome. 

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Seattle Schools has tried to improve racial equity in the district for years with little success. Jones has said he’s committed to improving educational outcomes for students of color, specifically Black boys, and board members say they believe Jones is the leader the district needs right now. 

Chandra Hampson said she had Jones in mind for the job even before she was elected to the board. 

“He was part of trying to bring the attention to Black students really early on — not that he takes credit for that — but he was part of that,” Hampson said. “He was willing to step up and provide that leadership.”

And Harrell added, “I know thousands of people who recently embraced social justice. Brent is one of the few people I know — for as long as I’ve known him — to talk about building a pathway for others consistently. He has earned my respect because I’ve seen the way he leads.”  

Jones is the first Black male leader the district has had in more than two decades. He said that is a burden, but he accepts it willingly. 

He says that as an African American, he’ll be judged by a higher standard, “but I embrace it, I think it’s an honor.” 

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Some of Jones’ top issues: making sure central office staff understand the needs of schools and what is necessary to make improvements, and engaging families in ways that are relevant and meaningful to their children.

“The one-size-fits-all doesn’t really work for families,” Jones said. “We know as diverse as our families are, they have unique and special needs and I want to figure out ways to really be responsive, so that … families can be, and parents can be, their children’s first teacher.” 

Jones said he wants to go beyond understanding issues for students in the district and focus on outcomes, and he wants budget decisions geared toward those desired outcomes. 

“I don’t want our students just to graduate, I want our students to thrive,” Jones said. “I want our students to be fully engaged in learning and I want them to feel like they are all scholars and that they can achieve whatever their passion is.” 

An “extraordinary” childhood

When Jones was 7, he stood before the Seattle School Board and spoke about why his school should be named after civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. — one of a group of students who supported the name change, as did others in the community.

Soon enough, what used to be Harrison Elementary School in South Seattle became Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School.

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“That was an early taste of advocacy for me,” Jones said.

He describes his childhood as “extraordinary.” He mainly attended Seattle schools in the central and southern parts of the city. During desegregation, he was bused to what is now Broadview-Thomson K-8, in the Bitter Lake neighborhood, for sixth grade.

The Franklin High School graduate said he didn’t experience Seattle as a majority white city when he was younger. He had a diverse group of friends, and Black teachers as role models.

“I had no idea this was a unique experience,” Jones said of growing up in the city’s most diverse neighborhood. “I think it shaped me.” 

Jones’ daughter, Nia, graduated from Cleveland High School and is now attending college in California. “She’s my pride and joy,” Jones said. 

Childhood friend Zachary Fleet, who met Jones when they were about 8, said sports were a big part of the lives of Jones and of their friend group. They played soccer, basketball and football and skied together. 

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“He came from a delightful family,” Fleet said. “I’m not surprised at all how successful he was.”

Growing up, Jones said he always assumed he’d go to college, and he credits his parents for that. He attended Washington State University for a year then transferred to the UW where he majored in zoology and ran track.

Jones’ mother, Mona Lake Jones, taught in Seattle schools and graduated from Washington State University, received her master’s at UW and doctorate at Seattle University. His father, Joe Jones, played football at UW and was a management consultant. 

Jones has relationships with so many people in the city that, at times, it can be hard to manage all of his meetings, said his executive assistant Cathy Jimenez, who also worked alongside him at King County Metro.

“He’s also somebody who doesn’t like to give you the how,” Jimenez said. “He doesn’t want to tell you how to make the sausage, he wants to tell you what he wants the sausage to taste like and let you figure out how that works.” 

Jones has a master’s degree in educational administration from the University of Texas and received his doctorate there in educational leadership. It’s also where he met his wife, Janine, whom he married in 2001. 

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Fleet said he was surprised Jones wanted the top job but not that many wanted him to stay in the role.

“Brent listens more than he talks, and that’s not always the case when you get to the level he’s at,” Fleet said. “Brent’s experience will lead to a lot less friction and more work to get done.”

Correction: A previous version of this story said Greenwood Elementary School is in Ballard. Greenwood Elementary is in Greenwood.