Palo Alto's first-ever equity coordinator was raised in a small agricultural town in California's Central Valley by an immigrant mother and first-generation Mexican-American father, neither of whom hold college degrees.
Martha Castellon said a place like Stanford University, where she eventually went for her bachelor's and doctoral degrees, "may have well of been halfway across the country for me."
But she credits her parents and a supportive community -- teachers who took an active interest in her, a swim coach who mentored her, members of her church who checked in with her about her college applications -- with helping her to get where she is today.
"I realize that kids need that here," she said in an interview with the Weekly. "There are kids in Palo Alto who have that naturally, and there are kids who grow up and they don't have that supportive, really rich environment in which they can thrive."
As the district's new equity coordinator, she said she sees it as her responsibility to engender a culture that creates the supportive community she had growing up -- one "that cares about children who may not be as privileged as most of the kids in Palo Alto."
Castellon, also a parent in the district, begin her new post earlier this month. Creating the equity coordinator position was one of several top recommendations from the superintendent's Minority Achievement and Talent Development committee, which worked for several months last year to evaluate and then make proposals to reduce Palo Alto's longstanding achievement gap, which shows many minority and low-income students failing to achieve at the same levels as their peers.
The committee's members often stressed that hiring a dedicated, visionary person to oversee the implementation of their recommendations and holding the district responsible for other equity efforts would be critical to moving the district forward.
Castellon said her immediate priority for this year is to roll out the group's recommendations, some of which have already been implemented. Another priority is connecting with minority students and their families, she said, "making sure that they feel like they're a part of the district and that their voices are being heard."
Castellon first became interested in education after studying abroad in Spain as a Stanford student. At the time, bilingual teachers were in high demand, she said, and within two weeks of graduation she was teaching second- and third-grade English-language learners in the Long Beach Unified School District. Her students were all native Spanish speakers, either immigrants themselves or children born to immigrant parents who didn't necessarily speak English.
She had grown up bilingual -- speaking English at school and both Spanish and English at home -- and realized the importance of providing her students with a strong connection at school.
"Unlike me, my students had few English-speaking adults outside of school who they could relate to and build relationships with," Castellon said. "This was eye opening. As a teacher, I wanted to become that connection to the English-speaking world and give them greater access to English while continuing to build upon the strengths they had developed in their home language."
Castellon spent five years in Long Beach before wanting to deepen her skills as an English as a Second Language (ESL) educator. She enrolled in a master's program in teaching ESL at the University of California, Los Angeles. That led to a position at UCLA's Center for the Study of Evaluation, then back to the Bay Area to Stanford's Graduate School of Education for a position in English-language learner education research. She eventually wanted to make a career out of the subject and obtained a doctorate in educational linguistics from Stanford in 2010.
In 2011, Castellon became the executive director for Stanford's Understanding Language initiative, which aimed to help English-language-learners (ELLs) across the country meet the new Common Core State Standards in language arts and mathematics, as well as new science standards.
"There was an awareness among people who worked in the field of ELL education that these standards posed significantly greater linguistic demands on all students but that those demands would be even more challenging for English-language learners and for students who didn't speak the standard English dialect," Castellon said.
The first few years of the initiative was dedicated to raising awareness among educators about the challenges the new standards presented for both them and students, then to developing resources -- papers, materials, sample lessons, professional development -- to aid in that effort.
As part of Understanding Language, Castellon also conducted in-depth reviews of school districts' policies, programs and practices for English-language learners.
The minority committee's final report charges the equity coordinator with a host of significant efforts: create an official district equity plan that "articulates the district's vision for equity and inclusion, with accountability measures;" establish a district team, with representatives from each school site, that is charged with implementing the plan; create a biannual process to solicit input from historically underrepresented students and parents; and train staff to "address the disparities (between students) ... in access to materials, enrichment opportunities, and ease of navigating the PAUSD system."
Other major recommendations include more days per week of full-day kindergarten; more clear and objective processes around laning, which tracks students by level, and waivers at the middle and high schools; increased and more regular professional development around unconscious bias; and work to recruit, hire and retain more diverse teachers and administrators. Another proposal to create parent liaisons at each school site is in full swing this year, with almost every school in the district covered by a person serving as a bridge between the school and parents of historically underrepresented children.
Castellon said she plans to immerse herself in the community, meeting with families and administrators and visiting each school in the district. It is this on-the-ground element of the job that attracted her to the position in the first place, she said.
"I had worked on these initiatives that were meant to influence policy and practices throughout the country, but I was really feeling like 'OK, it's time to start putting some of this good knowledge to work.' What better way to put it to work than in my own community?"