By Steve Marschke
“I’m a parent advocate,” sums up 32-year old Francisco Castillo of Southport, who is one of five people running for a vacant seat on West Sacramento’s school board.
Castillo said that what originally drew him into the school board race was his family’s need to camp at night outside their local campus, Bridgeway Island Elementary School, in order to secure a spot in that school’s kindergarten program for one of their two young children.
“We got there at 2 a.m.,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Wow, something needs to be done about this.’ Not that I had a solution. . . but that sparked an interest in my getting more involved with my son’s education.”
Because both Castillo and his wife were working parents, they needed to ensure their older child got a place in the morning session at that campus, and there weren’t enough slots to meet the need. Thus the all-nighter.
Castillo came to San Francisco from Nicaragua when he was five, and was raised by a single mother from about the age of eight. She was not comfortable getting involved in her son’s American schooling.
“She avoided attending parent conferences, not because she didn’t want to go, but she didn’t have the information and access,” he told the News-Ledger. “She spoke Spanish.”
Now, he considers parental involvement to be one of the “pillars” of his education platform.
“What are the resources we can give parents to tell them ‘your child’s education is important, your involvement is urgent?” he asked rhetorically.
“There are even businesses in West Sacramento and outside West Sacramento that can provide some of the resources that help support parental engagement.”
Those “engagement” tools could include the use of technology, he said.
“There are different ways to get parents involved and we need to think outside the box.”
Castillo also wants to expand Washington Unified School District’s preschool programs.
“There’s a lot of research that says that. . . in the long run, it will help them academically,” Castillo commented.
His third “pillar” is college preparation and career education.
“The numbers are pretty evident,” he reported. “Only eight students of our high school seniors last year are considered college-ready . . (The others) need to take remedial classes because they’re not college-ready.”
Castillo said he was referring to California State University tests provided to college-bound kids at River City High.
He sees a lot of potential value from creating new and better partnerships between the school district and the City of West Sacramento, along with making deals with business partners in the region and beyond.
“How do we partner with Silicon Valley and bring some of those resources to West Sacramento?” asked Castillo. “I don’t think we’re thinking on that level. We think of West Sacramento as just the city of West Sac. We need to go outside the city. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, there are programs already out there.”
Castillo’s “day job” is actually in the field of education advocacy. He works as deputy national press secretary for StudentsFirst, a nonprofit that “helps pass policies that put the interests of students first. . . in working with state legislators.”
The organization tries to “elevate the teaching profession,” “empower parents through information and choice,” and create “fiscal transparency and responsibility,” he said.
Does providing parents with “choice” mean advocating charter schools?
Speaking for himself, Castillo replied that “I support providing parents with excellent educational options, whether that’s public charter school or traditional public school. A lot of parents in West Sacramento (currently) send their kids over to Clarksburg, to the charter school there.”
He believes that charter schools are an option – but they need to be held accountable, and even shut down if they don’t perform.
How about providing school vouchers, so parents can easier send their children to private schools?
“I’m still kind of thinking about that one,” Castillo answered. “There’s a lot of research that shows that low-income families benefit from vouchers.”
The candidate said he perceived Washington Unified’s school board – before the November election – to have been somewhat “polarized,” but he believes that with new members on board, it has made a lot of progress in the past few months.
He likes the can-do spirit of the City of West Sacramento, and hopes the school district can repair some relationships with the city and enjoy the fruits of a better partnership. As a former staff member of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, he saw some of that happen in the City by the Bay.
“When I was working for him, he appointed the first-ever liaison to the school board. . . It made sense, because the city was providing resources to the school district, and the district was able to work with the city to get a lot of things done. We all know there’s been some tension (in West Sacramento) between the city and the school board.”
Castillo and his family have been in West Sacramento for about five years, he reports. In addition to working for Mayor Newsom, his resume includes service on San Francisco’s youth commission, and working at a teen center and for several nonprofits. He attended San Francisco public schools, earning a political science degree from San Francisco State.
What does he see as the job duties of a school board member in WUSD?
“A school board member is someone who can help craft a strategic vision for the district,” said Castillo. “A school board member can’t do anything alone,” but requires the ability to be part of a team, he added.
“The school board gives the superintendent a clear vision and clear direction about where we need to go. . . it’s not about micromanaging.”
He was asked whether the district’s schools could be called “excellent,” “good,” “fair” or “poor.”
“I think the district is ‘good,’” he responded. “We can strive for excellence. We can get to that same path the city is taking as far as being an excellent city.”
How is the district doing in student test scores, and how much does that matter?
“Bridgeway Island is excellent – their API is around 780, it’s doing great,” he answered. “It’s not the only thing that measures (performance). “I think (the district) is doing fairly well, and improving every year. The north part of the West Sacramento is where the schools are struggling a little more.”
Castillo said there’s a perception – with some validity – that there is a difference between how the “north” and “south” are handled in WUSD.
“It seems like we don’t pay much attention to the north area of West Sacramento,” he said. “Because (Southport) is a newer area, it tends to get more of the resources.”
It’s important to put the resources where they’re needed, wherever that may be, he added.
“I think there’s a sense of the ‘South of West Sacramento’ and the ‘North of West Sacramento.’ How about ‘all of West Sacramento’?”
Castillo believes the district is in pretty good financial shape.
“I have to give ‘props’ to the superintendent, his staff and even the board,” he commented about their money-handling. And the passage of state Proposition 30 will bring a “surge of money” to the district following several years of cost-cutting.
Where should the money go?
“One idea would be having it go to the classroom. . . but it’s the kind of vision we have to decide as a school board, with the input of the superintendent,” he answered. There might be “holes to fill,” he said, like restoring school bus routes cut during the economic hard times.
Castillo reports that he has been endorsed by West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon, by Mayor pro tem Oscar Villegas, school board president Mary Leland and vice president Katie Villegas, by county supervisors Mike McGowan and Matt Rexroad, and by Laborers Local 185, among others.
He invites interested people to contact him – and provide suggestions – by phoning (916) 668-9659, emailing email@example.com, or visiting www.castilloforkids.com.
“I don’t have all the answers,” Castillo commented. “Some of the best solutions come from the community.”
Editor’s note: This interview is the fourth in a series. Each of the five people running for a seat on the Washington Unified School District has been invited to talk to the News-Ledger about the issues. The final interview will appear in print on Feb. 20.
The ballot will be an all-mail ballot, with votes due by March 5. Ballots may be dropped off at a location on the first floor of city hall, 1110 West Capitol Avenue.
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Copyright News-Ledger 2013