Oakland teacher sets out to make a difference with students

Marlene Castro.

August 26, 2013 8:01:24 PM PDT
Only 1 in 20 high school students in the Oakland Unified School District makes it to a public university in California. With Monday being the first day of school for many students, one young teacher who defied the odds has set out to make a difference in the lives of others.

This year fifth grade teacher Marlene Castro and her school are driving home the message of college preparedness before the students finish the fifth grade. The message is called Think College Now, and their vision is to ensure that the students have the tools they need to pursue their life's dream and attend college in the future.

"We're fifth graders and we're leading the pack at this school," said Castro.

Monday is Castro's first day on the job and the new teacher spoke about her road to the classroom. Castro grew up in East Palo Alto in a neighborhood where gangs, drugs and violence replaced, reading, writing and arithmetic.

Her first lesson included teaching her students the value of respecting and supporting one another.

"Respect just can be an umbrella for a lot of things," she said.

Castro is one of only five students from her former middle school who made it to college. After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley this spring, she set her eyes on the community she felt needed her most.

"The reality was that I had teachers who only focused on the ones doing well and everyone else who was too far gone, was too far gone and not worth anyone's time," she said.

Castro knows she has her work cut out for her. According to a report by the Urban Strategies Council released last year, 1 out of 5 African American boys in Oakland, more than 1,200, were suspended from school at least once and an equal number were chronically absent.

"Every time I do see a younger, especially boy, male of color, it's, that's my younger brother. That's a boy who I cannot give up on. And it's also a young woman who needs a role model that I never had and I'm hoping to be for them," said Castro.

Her class of 27 students, mostly black and Latino, are faces she sees reflected in her own.