The start of the 2023-24 school year for Salem Keizer Public Schools is fast approaching, with sixth and ninth graders beginning Sept. 5, and all other non-kindergarteners on Sept. 6. The district and new Superintendent Andrea Castañeda are ready with their top priority “a great opening.”
And that goal takes a lot of prep work.
“Some people think that the day before school we just kind of open the doors, turn on the lights, make sure the fridge still works, but it’s a huge amount of work to open school,” Castañeda said. “And so our team has been really focused on that, trying to get all those last vacancies filled and just make sure we have got everything in place to welcome students and families back into school.”
And it comes at a time where that return to school is still a little different.
It’s no secret that COVID caused a major disruption to schooling. Those lost years have been pointed at as an explanation for many of the behavioral issues seen in school the last two years.
But Castañeda said she has retrained herself to not think of it as lost time, because the reality of it is that they still must be there for the students.
“How do we show up for students exactly as they are, however it happened to be that they got there?” Castañeda said.
Castañeda said that while some students may be behind due to COVID, others have more dramatic advancements because of what they experienced.
One example of this is the new Behavioral Health and Human Services program at the Career Technical Education Center (CTEC). The new program drew a lot of interest and is oversubscribed.
And in her conversations with those involved in the program, Castañeda has been told it is because of the students’ experiences during the pandemic.
“Young adults went through some things during COVID and they left wanting to be part of a helping profession,” Castañeda said.
To Castañeda it is a multidimensional issue. While some students will require extra attention, others will find new paths to success.
But for everyone, Castañeda has an idea of how to start the recovery.
“Every child in school every day, it’s going to help a lot,” Castañeda said. “That’s the fastest way to bring us all back to a new normal.” While a great opening is the short-term goal, Castañeda also has a lofty long-term goal for the district. She sees an opportunity to make the SKPS a national model. With the ever-changing multilingual demographic, she sees a chance to make the district move in the same direction as the city.
“It’s sometimes hard to see when we’re in it, how unusual and special that is,” Castañeda said. “So I could see a version of the next couple of years where we become a destination district for what it looks like to build a school system that is not just reflecting the rich assets and demographics of the community, but is actually kind of setting a new bar for what it means to be entering the young adult world with a lot of different skills than I or maybe you left high school with.”
The dual language program, multilingualism and multiculturalism are all part of that for Castañeda. And on top of that, it’s about changing and being smarter about what the world of work actually means in today’s society.
For Castañeda, that’s a way of breaking the old mentality of going from high school to college then onto post-secondary training before getting a job you stay in.
“That is absolutely not what is happening in our world right now,” Castañeda said. “And that’s not a source of threat. It’s a source of curiosity and interest.”
In her short time at SKPS, Castañeda hasn’t had the chance to visit every campus yet, but she has been impressed with each one of the dozen or so she has seen, saying that every school has something to be celebrated.
At McNary, Castañeda pointed to the youth entrepreneurship with the student-run coffee shop.
“Students who were talking with such excitement about not just running a coffee shop, but having the vision for it and pushing it all the way through from a concept to a business plan, to a pilot, to a scaled reality,” Castañeda said. “Well, that’s the kind of thing that I think the community would be excited to know about because it shows a level of creative and innovative flexibility going on in a school site that is a real asset.”
And she would love to see something similar at every campus. Not necessarily student businesses, but more opportunities to craft student leaders.
When she took the position, Castñeda asked her predecessor Christy Perry an important question. She asked Perry what parts of her legacy were most important.
“ Things that were really important to her are also fortunately very important to me,” Castañeda said. “Early literacy, foundational literacy, including multilingualism, and the work of CTEC and the building-based career and tech programming. Those are both programs and policies, and they have my unswerving commitment and attention.”
And that’s not the only place she doesn’t plan to change much.
When it comes to her administration and the administrator roles at the district, she doesn’t anticipate big changes to the roles, function or size.
However, with looming fiscal conditions and decisions to be made, she knows where she wants resources concentrated.
“We need enough people in administrator roles to develop an effective and efficient organization that’s mission focused, and we need to keep as many resources as possible in school buildings and sites, providing services to students and families,” Castañeda said.