Candidate Joey Castilleja: Small Schools can do big things


Joey Castilleja fields school board questions.

OKANOGAN — Okanogan School Board members grilled superintendent candidate Joey Castilleja more than an hour last Wednesday evening, at the close of his day-long interview for the job.

Castilleja, Sunnyside, is one of three candidates seeking the position now held by Richard Johnson, who is retiring at the end of June. Ashley Goetz, Okanogan, is going through the paces today and Richard McFarland, Dallas, Ore., will be interviewed tomorrow.

Board members anticipate selecting the next superintendent either Friday night or Saturday.

Each candidate is getting a tour of the district and community, and meeting with administrators, students, classified and teaching staff and community stakeholders. After dinner with the board, a formal board interview caps the day.

Castilleja, principal of White Swan High School in the Mount Adams School District, said he enlisted in the Army after high school in Zillah. He entered teaching through the Troops to Teachers program. He taught music in Manson and was deployed twice to Iraq and Afghanistan.

He taught elementary school in Sunnyside, then was tapped as the “turnaround principal” for White Swan, which was classified as a school in need of improvement by the federal government.

He has a master’s degree and anticipates finishing his doctorate in education this spring. His focus is on performance improvement.

Board members took turns asking Castilleja a series of prepared questions, which they will also pose to Goetz and McFarland. Questions covered a variety of topics, including school finances, budgeting, student discipline, board-superintendent relations, decision making, leadership style, employee relations, staff evaluations, student testing, levy and bond passage and the role of extracurricular activities.

Castilleja said he is a firm believer in small schools, and has always worked for small school districts.

“Little schools can do big things,” he said, adding that he’d like to see Okanogan become a national model of excellence in rural education.

He said he’s applied only to Okanogan and would like to move his family – wife Sherry and children Mya, Aly and Jayson – to the community for a long-term stay. He said most

superintendents can expect three to five years in a position before moving on, and he said he would have big shoes to fill in following Johnson’s 30 years in Okanogan.

He described himself as a “big picture person” with a philosophy of “tight but loose” when it comes to leading a district. That means he provides the framework and oversight, but lets the principals and teachers concentrate on the details of educating students.

“I’m very optimistic,” he said. “I place a lot of value on research.”

He said he’s very familiar with school finances because White Swan’s turnaround status brought a lot of extra federal funding to the district, and that money had to be tracked.

Similarly, he said he’s very aware of legal issues and student discipline. When he arrived in the Mount Adams district, it had the highest expulsion rate in the state at around 19 percent. The next-highest was in the 9-10 percent area.

That required a shift in mindset and rather than just sending misbehaving kids home, the administrative staff came up with ways of building trust, supporting students socially and pressing them academically, he said. The expulsion rate has dropped into the 9-10 percent area.

However, Castilleja said discipline doesn’t seem to be a problem at Okanogan.

“I’m impressed with your data here,” he said. “It says a lot about management and your kids.”

He said extracurricular activities are important and provide many students a sense of fitting in and belonging. Sports, band, art, FFA and other clubs all are important.

Those activities also are a way of engaging parents and the community, he said.

“They buy the paper because their kids are on the front page,” he said.

On the academic side, standardized tests are “a kind of necessary evil,” but they’re also a “lagging indicator” of how students and schools are doing. Constant testing interrupts instruction, and he advocates keeping an eye on student progress throughout the year and not just at testing time.

In terms of levies and bonds, Castilleja said he would strive to know the district’s demographic and the measure’s goals. He also said there are other means of financing needed facilities and projects than property taxes.


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