Literacy, listening are big focuses for Salem-Keizer’s new superintendent

Andrea Castañeda has four questions written on her white board.

The incoming superintendent of the Salem-Keizer School District is scheduling time to meet with every school principal in the district —about 65 people — before the start of her first school year here.

She asks each of them: What are you most proud of? What are your priorities for next year? What keeps you up at night? And what advice are you uniquely positioned to offer?

It’s work Castañeda sees as crucial to implementing her vision for Oregon’s second largest school district. She said she intends to focus on student literacy and seeing through a significant expansion of the district’s dual language education programs.

“(School) leaders are, in many cases, the place where a district vision thrives or falters. And it’s in the end, often because of their support: the support that we provide them, the tools that they have to do such hard work, and their ability to help co-construct a vision,” she told Salem Reporter in an interview.

Castañeda began work July 1, taking over for retiring superintendent Christy Perry, who led the district for nine years. She comes to Salem from the Tulsa School District, where she worked as a top district executive, leading areas including charter school authorization, high school design, equity efforts and human resources.

She and her husband, Chris, have moved into a home near South Salem High School — close enough to hear sports events, she expects. The couple has two daughters. Their youngest, 18, remained in Tulsa and is preparing to head off to college.

The new superintendent will present her 100-day plan to the Salem-Keizer School Board Tuesday evening, outlining both her own goals and key projects other district leaders have underway.

One of her early tasks is to develop an early literacy plan — now a greater focus in Oregon as state priorities have shifted from boosting graduation rates to ensuring kids learn how to read proficiently from a young age.

“If we’re doing it right, it is always in motion. There is always a plan, and there is always new research and better work to do,” she said.

Castañeda said the school district has work to do, but she also sees promise in the district’s bilingual efforts to teach native English and Spanish speakers alongside each other.

“I think that Salem-Keizer can be the place that is the destination district for showing early literacy in dual language. Not many places have the infrastructure or the technical expertise to run a model that can be amazing for all students, regardless of their language history, regardless of their culture,” she said.

She plans to establish a youth cabinet — a mechanism for high school juniors and seniors to weigh in on district decisions.

“Here’s what matters to me right now: the idea of creating an avenue for us to learn directly from students about the things that matter most to them. And a chance to treat students like young adults who deserve access to the scope of decisions and the complexity of the world that they’re living in,” she said. Her hope is to have the cabinet ready in the fall.

Castañeda said learning about the experiences of district employees in their system is another top priority. She sees staff longevity as a key factor for helping students do well in school.

“It has never been more important to reduce turnover and maintain staff than it is right now,” she said.

Her days so far are “stacked” with meetings, but Castañeda said she’s also attending one or two events daily out in the community.

She recalled a recent visit to a class at the Salem-Keizer Coalition for Equality that filled her with a sense of gratitude. Parents and grandparents sat with toddlers to learn about phonics and how to help their children learn to read.

“You felt the joy of the place,” Castañeda said. “It was cultivating joy and learning. And those are special moments. And not every not every community has those.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.