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President Steve Phelps Leaves Lasting Legacy at O’Dowd and Beyond


The Bishop O’Dowd High School community is mourning the passing of President Steve Phelps, Ed.D., a passionate and visionary leader and man of principle and kindness.

Steve, 73, passed away on December 26, 2017, after suffering complications from a heart procedure. He is survived by his wife, Sue, children, Amy and Chris, and grandson, Boston.

“For Steve, God’s grace was discoverable every day at school. In the students, in the learning, in the teachers, in the families. Steve embodied the joy that resulted from the ministry of education in our Catholic school. He was so proud of that work here at O’Dowd and we are all so grateful to him for it,” Principal James Childs said.

President at O’Dowd since 2005, Steve’s tenure was rich with accomplishment.

He led successful capital campaigns that financed $20 million worth of campus renovations and program investments. Among these completed projects are 45 renovated classrooms, including two state-of-the-art chemistry labs, updated technology infrastructure, completion of the LEED-Platinum certified Center for Environmental Studies and the adjoining Living Lab. Steve also nurtured broad community support for the school’s Transforming Lives Annual Fund which in 2016-17 provided $2.4 million in funding for financial aid and other mission-critical programs.

Steve spearheaded the one-to-one laptop program (O’Dowd was one of the first schools in the Bay Area to implement such a program), and devoted time, personnel, funding, and energy to enhance the technology infrastructure that would support expanding tech growth.

Steve recognized that the mission of Catholic educators is to reach every student entrusted to them. With that focus, he dedicated resources to significantly expand the supplemental academic support services at O’Dowd, including a mentoring program for at-risk students. Additionally, he supported the development of a comprehensive tutoring program before, during, and after school.

Under Steve’s guidance, over 98% of O’Dowd graduates go on to college, including some of the most selective schools in the country.

Understanding that the school needed to emerge as a leader in Catholic education to further extend its mission, Steve dedicated significant resources to marketing/communications and admissions from the day he started at O’Dowd. Applications to the school have doubled since 2005.

He also made it a priority to be a leader in Diocesan-level planning and to support the elementary schools with money, time, and effort.

At the time of his passing, Steve was in the process of revising the school’s Master Plan, which 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.

O’Dowd Board of Regents Chairperson Kevin Kelly said that with remarkable vision and skill, Steve turned O’Dowd into a school that responds to the diverse needs of today’s students and serves as a model nationwide for how inclusive Catholic core values can animate education. “He built O’Dowd into a pillar of the East Bay educational landscape and became an icon in the process. He leaves an incomparable legacy,” he said.

But for Steve, the professional accomplishments didn’t compare to the personal relationships he forged with students and their families, colleagues, Board of Regents members, and those in the greater Catholic community.

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Steve was deeply connected to the students – he knew their names and the activities they were involved with – and was ever-present at games, activities, tournaments, plays, concerts, and liturgies.

Families knew his concern and care were genuine.

“Our family has been blessed to have had Dr. Phelps in our lives for two generations. The impact he made on my brother and other young men as a coach in the 70s was invaluable, continuing through the decades to my own children’s time at O’Dowd. Despite the number of kids he taught, coached, led, and mentored, he always had time to talk to students and families individually, encouraging them toward success,” Rhea Butler Wisherop said.

Former O’Dowd principal Pam Shay said Steve continually encouraged colleagues in their professional growth to enhance academic quality at O’Dowd, Shay noted. “He was always impressing upon his staff to read the latest in leadership and educational research and bring that level of innovation to the classroom,” she said. “And he was dedicated to diversity in hiring, ensuring that women and people of color were placed in influential positions in the administration.”

Understanding that teachers needed time and support in learning new and innovative strategies for teaching and learning in the 21st century, Steve expanded the budget for professional development significantly and leveraged the emerging resources through No Child Left Behind federal funding. He also developed a summer institute for other Catholic School educators to experience 21st-century professional development on the O’Dowd campus, forging partnerships with nationally recognized professional development consulting firms in realizing this goal. He recognized the value of life-long learning and supported teachers in pursuing advanced degrees.

Moreau Catholic Principal Lisa Tortorich was one of the first people Steve hired when he arrived at O’Dowd. Tortorich served as assistant principal at O’Dowd for five years and says she owes Steve a debt of gratitude for both his leadership and friendship.

“Steve was a visionary leader who worked tirelessly to respond to the changing needs of 21st-century students thoughtfully. He led with the perfect balance of heart and mind and was a remarkable thought partner for transforming education,” she said. “Those who knew Steve well understood that he engaged others by sharing his endless supply of ideas, books, and revelations and that he was a sincere and caring human being who truly made a difference. His influence shaped my perspective on education and his friendship changed my life forever.”

In the broader community, Steve was recognized by the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), the University of San Francisco (USF), and U.S. Catholic Magazine for leadership and the ability to convert research-based concepts into programs and policies that assist Catholic schools in achieving their missions. He was also recognized for his 20 years of service as a youth worker, teacher, coach, and mentor to hundreds of inner-city youth in Hunter’s Point and the Western Addition of San Francisco beginning in 1965. An energetic consensus builder, he was a frequent presenter at national and regional conferences of school administrators on the design of effective 21st-century schools.

“Steve was a remarkable man and educator. His impact on Catholic education in the Bay Area is unparalleled. He was always so generous in providing meaningful professional development to hundreds of teachers and administrators. I will miss his wisdom and his warm smile,” said Lorraine Paul, president of Jesuit High School in Carmichael, California.

Before coming to O’Dowd, Phelps served as a teacher, administrator, and coach at San Francisco’s St. Ignatius College Preparatory for over 30 years. While at St. Ignatius, he spent 10 years working with the Jesuits at the national level to help reimagine Jesuit education for the 21st century. Read about Steve’s impact at SI »

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