Think Out Loud

Salem-Keizer school district’s new superintendent is ready for the challenge

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
April 7, 2023 3:57 p.m. Updated: April 12, 2023 10:41 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday, Apr 7

Andrea Castañeda, currently serving in a cabinet-level role at Tulsa Public Schools, will succeed superintendent Christy Perry, who’s retiring at the end of the school year.

Andrea Castañeda, currently serving in a cabinet-level role at Tulsa Public Schools, will succeed superintendent Christy Perry, who’s retiring at the end of the school year.

Courtesy of Salem-Keizer Public Schools / OPB

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Last month, the Salem-Keizer school board chose Andrea Castañeda as their new superintendent. Castañeda comes to Oregon from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she was the head of the public school personnel office. She officially begins work on July 1. We talk to Castañeda about what she envisions for one of the largest school districts in Oregon.

Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Oregon’s second-largest school district is about to have a new superintendent. The Salem-Keizer school board chose Andrea Castañeda as the district’s new leader. She’s worked in K-12 education for 20 years or so. Most recently, she served as the chief talent and equity officer for the Tulsa, Oklahoma School District. But she’s no stranger to Oregon. She grew up here and attended various schools over the course of her childhood. Castañeda officially begins her new job on July 1, but she joins us now to talk about it. Congratulations and welcome to Think Out Loud.

Andrea Castañeda: Thank you, Dave. I’m so happy to be here with you.

Miller: You’ve said that this was the only superintendent’s job that you applied for. What was it about this job in particular that, when you saw a listing you said, ‘I’m gonna put my name in’?

Castañeda: I’ve kept my eye on a lot of different superintendencies, and to be honest, I’ve never even been tempted until Salem-Keizer. It’s not merely that this was the only one that I applied to. This is the only one I have ever applied to. Honestly, I just think it’s a spectacular community with youth and neighborhoods who are just really full of potential and ready to show the state and the nation the proof point that the city can be. I come to that feeling of optimism naturally because I have had a chance to spend some time with them and in neighborhoods, and I just see so much potential. I can’t wait to be part of it.

Miller: Did you apply before you visited, or did you visit first?

Castañeda: I actually had kind of a stealth visit before the application was even opened. The true story of this is that I just started cold calling people on social media and saying, ‘Hey, you know what? This place seems great. Will you talk to me?’ It turns out that a lot of people say yes. So that scouting trip gave me a lot of opportunity: I talked to members of the community, great students and I learned enough to feel like my instincts that it was a great place were really, really right and just kind of pushed it all right over the finish line for me.

Miller: What do you think were the most important questions that you asked to students or staff or parents or community members – the things that you wanted to know about this district before you decided you wanted to be its leader?

Castañeda: Oh, that is a great question. I think one of the most important questions that I asked everybody was, “What haven’t we talked about? And, when we both part company, you’re gonna think, ‘Well, she really should have known about that.’” That’s always the question, at the very end of a conversation, that generates the most interesting insights. And from people I heard, ‘We need somebody who’s really focused on seeing what’s possible. We need somebody who understands that this work is hard, but it is good and it takes heart and commitment to do it well. And we’re looking for somebody who wants to make this their home, not just a kind of waylay station between one job and another.’ That really resonated with me because I’ve been in this a while, and I know that stability matters, and I know that being present through the thick and thin of the work of public education is a big part of the triumphs that we can experience together.

Miller: Do you have specific areas now where you both see room for improvement in the Salem-Keizer school district and already have a path to get there?

Castañeda: I think that Salem-Keizer has got so many great things happening right now. I want to first start by saying that one of my first loves is career and tech. It’s partially because I was a student at a vocational high school. I’ll do a quick shout out to my voc-tech teachers at Lost River High School. But Salem-Keizer has done some spectacular work with CTEC. I think that we are entering into a future workforce and climate for young people where having very flexible, wide ranging, interest-based skill sets is gonna be what propels them into a lifetime of satisfying, dynamic, family-sustaining wage work. I am really interested in the kinds of growth patterns that could emerge from the CTEC footprint. They’re already well on their way: introducing an aeronautics program, which I think is very interesting and opens the door to all sorts of other secondary related fields. So that’s super interesting to me.

Then on your question of a growth area, I think that Salem-Keizer sits in excellent company with the entire nation right now in needing to figure out how we are going to respond to the changing demands of youth in a post-pandemic climate. It isn’t merely that they need more because in some cases they do. It’s also that they know more about what they want from schools. It is sometimes hard for us, in our adult seats, to see that appetite as an exciting motivator for system change but I think it is, at this point, incumbent upon us.

In your last interview, we heard your interviewee say that people aren’t gonna go back to manual transmissions and diesel combustion engines. I think that that’s kind of similar for youth right now. They’re struggling to go back to a classroom setting that feels very conventional. They want something that they control more. They want something that they can interact with in ways that they have started to taste and are just going to keep asking of us.

Miller: Reading and math scores or attendance or graduation rates: these are quantifiable data points. They loom large in schools for obvious reasons. But when you tour a school or go into a classroom, what are you looking for? What are your more subjective metrics of what a quality education looks like?

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Castañeda: I’m gonna tell you a tiny story, and then I’m gonna answer that question. When I visited the residential construction program at CTEC in my last time at Salem, I met a student. He was a first year residential construction student named Leo, and they had asked him to come greet the new superintendent. So he stood there for a while and chatted with me. And then he looked at me at one point and he said, ‘Ma’am, I need to get back to work.’ And I was like that is what we are looking for in a spectacular educational experience. He was doing something that he wanted to get back to. His time with me was a distraction from the thing that mattered to him. You can kind of parlay that same sort of sentiment, that same feel, of drive, around insight and learning and discovery in all the content areas.

When I go into a classroom, I am almost always talking with students. So I’ll kind of sidle up next to them and say like, ‘Tell me about your screen. Tell me about your work. What are you working on right now?’ What I’m always looking for is, do they have an answer that they are ready to share about that moment? Do they have something that they want me to know about the content that they are working in or the goals that they’re working towards?

Miller: Why is that a marker of… something to look for? That they can tell you something, that they want to tell you something that they’re doing?

Castañeda: Well, when you imagine something that you’re learning for the first time, and it’s really engaging, I imagine that it would be true for you, too, that you kind of want to share that with someone. You want to turn to a friend or a colleague or someone in your family and say, ‘Hey, did you know this?’ It is the signature of our social nature around learning. And I want to know from the students that I’m with: Are they into the learning enough that they feel that social instinct to grow and share with others around it?

Miller: I want to turn to one of the issues that was just in the news this week that you’re gonna have to deal with – a lawsuit that the teachers union has announced it’s going to file. The Salem Reporter wrote about it this week and noted that just so far this school year there have been more than 700 reports of employees being injured by students. The union says that district officials have shown, quote, ‘deliberate indifference to known dangers.’

I don’t want to ask you to weigh in on a lawsuit that hasn’t been filed yet against the district that you don’t yet run. But I’m curious, more broadly, about your overall approach to an issue like this, when there are students with acute behavioral needs. What is the best way to ensure that they are being served and supported and educated while also ensuring the safety of classmates and teachers?

Castañeda: Yeah. It’s such an important question, and I do think the pandemic is driving us to even more responsibility for answering it. It’s true I haven’t really entered Salem-Keizer enough to speak to the specifics there, but I think that I can use Tulsa as an analog. I can tell you that I’ve spent – just this week – I would say easily two hours with our union here talking about this exact same topic. Here’s what I think matters. First, we do need to be really calibrated inside of our schools and know how to progressively move students and adults through a process of correction and in some cases discipline. But the key is that it’s progressive. It’s not erratic, it’s not spontaneous, and it’s not disconnected from the nature of the behavior. It’s a student centered progressive approach.

Miller: You’re using ‘progressive’ here. You don’t mean that in politically progressive but you mean more something moving in a systematic way that makes sense?

Castañeda: Yeah. Thank you for that clarification. Yeah, it’s one step to another and, in that sense, each step progresses as the behavior progresses.

Miller: Well, what might that mean in practice?

Castañeda: It means that, let’s say I am a classroom teacher and we’ll say I’m a middle school teacher and a student doesn’t want to, for example, put her cellphone down. That first moment where I ask her to do it and she refuses, needs to have a predictable response. That predictability is the key to students and adults knowing how to adjust their behaviors relative to one another. If my first response as a teacher for one student is to just turn and walk away, but my first response as a teacher to another student is to throw them out of the classroom, then I have accidentally created a climate where students don’t know what will happen. But that is really hard work for teachers, and student behavior is escalating. I don’t think anyone would inherently disagree with that right now. Students have more needs. I think one of the big pieces that, across the nation, we have to figure out is how to make our classrooms as predictable as possible while still being safe for the people who are in them.

And then there does frankly – and I think I will just have to be really candid about this – there do need to be fail-safes because there are occasions, infrequent but genuine occasions, when there is a safety issue at play and there needs to be a response that teachers and schools can immediately operationalize. I’ve seen some spectacular examples in Salem-Keizer where there are supported, cool-down spaces. Students can opt into it when they need to go there. That gives students a chance to separate themselves from an environment that might be escalating. These are the kind of approaches that are gonna make a difference over time and also protect everyone involved – not just from, at the worst, physical harm but, at a minimum, the disruption that comes from students or adults that are struggling with issues that are beyond their immediate reach.

Miller: This is maybe unfair for one minute left but, how do you want to be judged? What’s one of your metrics for success?

Castañeda: I want to be judged by the feeling that our team has about the progress of our work. If our custodians and our support staff, our teachers and our leaders look back over a year of effort and say, ‘We knew where we were going, and we started to get there’ it’s a spectacular success for the entire organization, and in that a spectacular success for the leadership team.

Miller: Andrea Castañeda, thanks very much. Let’s talk again after you have been in the job for a little while.

Castañeda: I look forward to that.

Miller: Andrea Castañeda is the incoming Salem-Keizer school district superintendent. She will start on July 1.

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