A consummate life-long learner, alumna Alysse Castro ’03 tried out two other educational leadership programs and left them in frustration before discovering Berkeley’s administrative credential program.
“Third time’s the charm,” said Castro, a graduate of the Berkeley School of Education’s Principal Leadership Institute (PLI) who was recently elected Alameda County Superintendent of Schools. She experienced the other programs as being focused on compliance that seemed to attract people who were climbing a professional ladder simply for the higher salary.
“PLI was the best education I received at any time. It was life changing,” Castro said. “It was incredibly well designed to connect values to skills. Courses were co-taught with an academic researcher and a practitioner. There were like-minded colleagues who were there to radically impact the outcomes for kids.”
Castro even returned to teach PLI’s school finance course. One of her favorite exercises was having PLI’ers imagine their school budget that has been doubled. The big question: What problems at your school would that money solve? What problems wouldn’t it?
“By the end, we’re connecting resources to values by writing a single plan for student achievement,” she said. “Most school administrators see finance as a technical, managerial task. The PLI taught me to draw a very clear through line to educational equity, the importance of explicitly making the values connection in everything that you do—even the most seemingly boring managerial decisions.”
Veteran Educator Elected to First Political Office
Castro has spent 30+ years in public education, both in middle school classrooms and in administration, most recently as the Executive Director of Court, County and Continuation High Schools for the San Francisco Unified School District.
The first time she taught outside of a traditional school setting was at a continuation school in Daly City, and she hasn’t looked back. “Continuation high school is the best kept secret in education if what you want is to teach the whole teenager,” Castro said.
Her classroom had students of varying ages, grades, and she taught them for all academic subjects, allowing her to integrate the curriculum. “Because they were all behind in school, because they had all been profoundly disconnected from their previous school experiences, I could reimagine the classroom—100 percent innovation all the time,” she said.
“The key to alternative education is to take a student whose needs have never been well met and imagine that that’s the only student on earth. What would school look like for them?” She purposefully didn’t let her students’ past define their future.
“Ultimately, everyone makes mistakes. It’s part of growing up. Everyone tries to do their very best on any given day,” Castro said. “How a particular incident happened is not nearly as important as knowing the students’ assets and strengths and building those. Because that’s what helps them grow into a better version of themselves.”
Her years in the classroom and as a principal have helped shape and deepen her commitment to improving educational systems that offer meaningful learning experiences for all students no matter the educational setting. Castro admits to being tentative about making a professional move that placed her far from teaching students.
“I fought the move to the central office and politics really hard, but I feel grateful to the coach who reframed that `central office leadership is equity at scale.’ There are pockets of excellence and equity at individual schools, but it only serves that school site. The role of the central and county office is equity at scale,” Castro said.
In California, county offices of education operate court schools at juvenile detention centers and alternative schools for expelled, foster, homeless, probation-involved, pregnant and parenting teens, and other underserved youth; have oversight of school districts’ finances; and provide additional academic services to districts that the county Superintendent believes are needed.
“Ultimately I see the County Office of Education as a safety net,” Castro said. “A safety net not just for the students we serve directly but to catch whole districts.”