Andrea Castañeda, a top executive in Oklahoma’s largest school system who has ties to Oregon, will be the next superintendent of the Salem-Keizer School District.
The Salem-Keizer School Board affirmed its choice during its public meeting on Tuesday, March 7, but had concluded she was the top choice after evaluating finalists in late February.
She will succeed Christy Perry, taking over Oregon’s second-largest school district on July 1. The school board will negotiate with her on the terms of a three-year contract.
READ IT: Draft contract
Castañeda got the job after an extensive search for Perry’s replacement that began last fall. Among those questioning finalists were three panels of educators, citizens and students sworn to secrecy about their work.
“Andrea is a visionary leader with a depth of experience that will drive Salem-Keizer Public Schools to achieve extraordinary outcomes for our students,” according to a statement from Ashley Carson Cottingham, school board chair.
“When I spend time in Salem-Keizer, I see parts of my own history and story.”–Andrea Castañeda, next superintendent, Salem-Keizer School District
“I leave this role confident that we have found the right person to lead the important and necessary work ahead,” Perry said in a prepared statement. She has been superintendent since 2014.
Castañeda will bring to her Salem duty 20 years in the education profession, starting as a part-time high school social studies teacher and coach, six years as deputy commissioner at the Rhode Island Department of Education and then in 2017 joining Tulsa Public Schools. In that district, with about 33,000 students, Castañeda worked most recently as the chief talent and equity officer.
“I have made mistakes, usually from moving too fast or failing to listen closely with an open heart,” she wrote in her application letter. “I share this reflection publicly in a cover letter because I believe that leadership always includes missteps. Being a learning leader requires mature humility and a capacity for unflinching self-reflection.
“Andrea is a fiercely dedicated and optimistic leader,” said her current boss, Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist. “I have seen again and again Andrea’s extraordinary ability to take on incredibly complex and challenging issues and develop effective, sustainable and innovative solutions.”
In her application for the Salem job, Castañeda made clear she wanted no other job.
“I am not interested in being a superintendent,” she wrote in her cover letter. “I am interested in being the superintendent of Salem-Keizer.”
READ IT: Andrea Castañeda’s cover letter
Castañeda grew up in small towns in Oregon, Idaho and Montana, moving from place to place with her family, a blend of white and Mexican. Her father served as a U.S. Forest Service ranger. Castañeda attended kindergarten in the high desert Oregon town of Paisley, learned to ride a bike in Prospect and attended high school in Merrill, near Klamath Falls.
“My favorite teacher was Danny Duncan, my high school track coach. Danny expected more of us than we expected from ourselves, and we never wanted to disappoint him by failing to reach his high standards,” she said in her biography on the Tulsa school website.
She earned degrees in education from Brown University and Harvard.
“I was the first woman in my family to graduate from college, and my experience was like that of many first-generation college students: I was isolated, unprepared, and didn’t have enough money to participate in the hum of everyday college life,” she told an interview at Ed Post in 2017. “I became doubly determined to graduate. The experience also set my life course: helping our youth find their purpose and achieve success.”
READ IT: Andrea Castañeda’s resume
In an interview Tuesday, Castañeda said she acted quickly after Perry announced her retirement last year. The chance to return to Oregon was a strong draw.
She didn’t wait for the formal recruiting process to open before exploring the opportunity to succeed Perry.
“I was so interested and compelled that I took a fall scouting mission to Salem,” she said.
“I cold-called people.”
Castañeda sensed that the community and district were “full of opportunity” and “rich in diversity and potential.”
Then came the hiring trek – forms, questions and interviews over two months.
She was impressed with community panels made up of local people who gave an entire day to interview the finalists. From the panelists questions, Castañeda picked up on interest in sustaining the district’s work in “creating equitable and just school systems.”
She heard concern about wellness for both students and district employees.
And then got a question that surprised her – what was her best job and her worst job?
“I just really love to work in schools and, frankly, to work,” Castañeda said.
Then, in late February, the school board members met in executive, or closed door, session to consider the applicants and settle on the top choice.
Castañeda was home in Tulsa, expecting to hear if she was in or out.
“My whole house was on pins and needles” as the board session in Oregon went into what was by then late night in Oklahoma.
“I sat with my phone on my lap, waiting,” she said. “Somehow, I missed a text message.”
Then she got the call from board leaders, offering her the job.
“I remember telling them I was speechless with gratitude,” Castañeda said.
She plans to spend one week a month in Salem until moving later this year to take on the job full time. She has been married 20 years and has daughters 18 and 24.
Castañeda recognizes the political unrest in school systems across the U.S. as school boards become more politicized or political issues force their way into education circles.
“Tulsa is a comparatively progressive community in a very red state,” she said.
School leaders need to set and hold to values for students and staff.
“We make sure we’re not being drawn into unproductive and really fractious debates,” she said. “We’re working every day to make sure our teachers and our school leaders are really clear in the value positions we have taken in the school district.”
She said that means working with school principals to be sure they understand those district values “and what lines we are going to hold with and for them.” That also means being sure the community understands there are “sacrosanct elements” of education.
Castañeda, who managed Covid efforts for the Tulsa system during the pandemic, said the decline in reading scores among elementary students is a national issue – and it’s already being addressed in the Salem-Keizer system. She intends to pick up where Perry is leaving off on efforts to help students recover.
“Powerful, expansive literacy is one of the greatest gifts we can give the students,” Castañeda said.
She considers the Salem job a homecoming for her.
“When I spend time in Salem-Keizer, I see parts of my own history and story – students bursting with potential, a community that sees its diversity as an asset and a gift, and a school system wholly dedicated to students.”
Contact Editor Les Zaitz by email: [email protected].
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Les Zaitz is editor and CEO of Salem Reporter. He co-founded the news organization in 2018. He has been a journalist in Oregon for nearly 50 years in both daily and community newspapers and digital news services. He is nationally recognized for his commitment to local journalism. He also is editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Oregon.