Leading 42 districts through major changes calls for unusual abilities
Understanding the educational landscape is what Rudy Castruita does best. Now serving his 10th year at the top of the San Diego County Office of Education, his particular talent suits the gargantuan dimensions that come with his job.
Castruita manages a $430 million annual budget, oversees the education of 545,000 children at 635 schools, handles the payroll for 45,000 teachers and staff and works closely with the 42 individual school districts--stretching across 4,261 square miles--for which his office is responsible.
"He is a leader of leaders, without making us feel like he's our boss," says Larry Maw, who has known Castruita since college and now leads the county's San Marcos Unified School District.
"You have to know how to herd cats and be good at it," adds Nick Aguilar, who is completing his seventh year of serving on the county's board of education.
Castruita, who was born in a largely Hispanic and relatively poor area near Los Angeles, says: "My role is really the bully pulpit for these school districts. There's a power when schools come together in a collaborative manner to drive public education in the best interest of teaching and learning for kids."
He has succeeded in getting his message across. "Part of my charge was to bring the business community into the county office and make them a vital player in public education," Castruita says. Early on, he convened a 25-person advisory board of local business leaders, began cultivating beneficial relationships with telecom providers, and convinced the owners of San Diego's professional sports teams to ante up hundreds of thousands of scholarship dollars.
Castruita also changed the way his own office did business. Leveraging its large number of schools helps better position them for grants and cuts the costs of standardized testing, legal services and employee health insurance.
"There's a bigger voice, which the federal government and the state will listen to, when you have more people involved in improving education," Castruita says. "We do that by coming together, whether it be for school safety, workforce partnerships, language arts or math."
"Rudy does have the ability to see the big picture," observes Aguilar. "But ... he recognizes his limitations and brings in others who can provide expertise--all without putting people on the defensive."
By all accounts, Castruita builds consensus among his school superintendents. His own experience--from teacher to principal to district superintendent--certainly helps.
Level the Playing Field
Castruita's most noticeable impact on the county's landscape has been a quantum leap in educational technology. Three years ago, his office opened a $5.2 million educational technology center, which enables teleconferencing to all of the county's schools. It has become a hub for Web-based curriculum and staff development and, according to Castruita, promises to "level the playing field in technology for all kids in the county."
More recently, he co-founded a Superintendents' Technology Advisory Committee of district superintendents who discuss problems and best practices. This committee was noted by the Consortium for School Networking when it recently bestowed its annual achievement award for outstanding leadership in education on Castruita.
Accolades aside, the achievement gap challenge beckons. A disproportionate number of minorities are not passing the state's high school exit exam. "We have to change our instruction to bring those kids along," he says, adding that a new task force is addressing the issue.
Castruita has gotten used to pulling off the unlikely. "It's music to my ears when someone says, 'You can't do that,' " he says. "I didn't even speak English when I entered kindergarten, and I was told throughout my elementary school career that I was stupid. ... That's why it's embedded in my heart to make a difference for kids." DA
Ronald Schachter is a freelance writer based in Newton, Mass.