From the humble beginnings of a farm-working family to her current position at the Imperial County Office of Education, assistant superintendent of educational services and Calexico resident Elena Castro didn’t know exactly where the road of education would lead her; though she did know it would lead her to success.
Castro is not only in an upper management position, but she is also the first Hispanic woman in 100 years to hold any type of assistant superintendent position at the ICOE, a fact Castro sees as a great opportunity.
“It’s an opportunity for me to see the big picture,” she says. “I’ve always worked just in one district and now to come over here and work for the betterment of 17 districts is just great.”
Castro credits her upbringing, specifically her father’s teaching methods and her parents emphasizing education, with her success. She also credits the knowledge and insight she received from her mentors, former Calexico administrators Robert Moreno, Emily Palacio and Cecilia Castaneda, during the course of her career.
“I didn’t really have all the advantages growing up. I know I didn’t want to work in the fields, and I wanted to go to school,” she says. “My mom and dad really pushed education for us so we could get ahead.”
Castro says she and her seven siblings would pick apricots with their father in the fields seasonally as they grew older.
“He would tell us, ‘You either go to school or you can do this for the rest of your life,’ and I told him I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life,” she admits. “He knew what he was doing; he got his point across.”
It was those experiences and her parents’ constant stress on education leading to a better life that began to fuel Castro’s fire to pursue education.
Well after Castro’s family settled in Calexico in 1958 when she was a toddler, Castro realized during her time in Calexico High School that education was her calling.
“From when I was in high school I knew I wanted to be a teacher,” she remembers. “I was really into education.”
“I went to Imperial Valley College straight out of high school and then to San Diego State University in Calexico while my older brother Fernando went to San Diego State main campus. My parents were pretty proud when they had two of their kids graduate at the same time from SDSU,” she says.
Castro first started her lengthy path in education as a migrant instructional aide, and after receiving her teaching credential in 1979, she began teaching at Dool Elementary at the age of 23.
“I taught there for one year, and then I got married and moved to San Diego,” Castro says. “I only lasted one year in San Diego because I liked the Valley. After we moved back, I went back to Dool and taught there for 19 years.”
In 1990, Castro was selected as Alumni of the Year for San Diego State University Imperial Valley campus even before some other milestones in her life.
“During the time that I was teaching I did a lot of consulting, probably between 1991 and 1997,” she says. “I was asked by a lot of districts to train their teachers so I did a lot of traveling all over the United States giving workshops, and also in Mexicali.”
Castro, along with Barbara Flores and Eddie Hernandez, also had the opportunity to write educational children’s books in the Piñata and Mas Piñata literacy series published by Celebration Press.
“They’re books that are used in a lot of schools,” Castro says of the bilingual books written to aid English learners and teachers. “My brother Michael and my sister Mary were the illustrators of the series. We were really excited about those and, believe it or not, they’re still selling,” she adds.
Eventually Castro went back to SDSU to earn her administrative credential in 1998. From there she taught at the university for about seven years.
“I taught reading and language arts classes at SDSU-IV so a lot of the teachers that are out there had to take my classes to be able to get their credentials,” she says.
After SDSU, Castro then worked as a coordinator to support kindergarten-through-sixth-grade teachers in curriculum and instructional support before later becoming the principal of Kennedy Gardens Elementary, where she stayed for four years.
From there she was called up by Superintendent David Alvarez of the Calexico Unified School District to become the assistant superintendent of academic support, where she worked on curriculum and instruction for all students K-12.
“Then from there, I decided that I needed a change and I saw the opening at ICOE and I decided to apply,” Castro says after her four years in that position with Calexico Unified. “I was fortunate enough to get the position,” she adds.
Castro believes inspiration can be found in her 32-year long path in education since it was her determination to succeed that helped her along her way.
“There were tough times when I was growing up, really tough times, but education will do it for you,” she says. “For me it was never, ‘No, I can’t do that.’ It was always, ‘I can do that.’ It was always a challenge, but I would never say no to any opportunity.”
“I think that’s a good message to anyone out there: You can achieve when you can put your mind to it,” she says.
As Elena Castro relaxes at her and her husband Peter’s getaway home in the mountains of Boulevard, Calif. with their two sons Michael and Diego, she is thankful that she is able to see the fruits of her labor.