By Lucy Peng and Luis Taganas
After the Alameda Unified School District’s former superintendent, Kirsten Vital, resigned last August, education administration veteran Sean McPhetridge has returned to AUSD to fill her position as interim superintendent for the 2014-2015 school year.
McPhetridge has dedicated nearly his entire life to education. Because McPhetridge was raised by parents who did not graduate from high school, he said he pushed himself fully to pursue his own education and ensure a quality education for others. As an educator, McPhetridge received his start as a bilingual teacher at an elementary school in Southern California. He transitioned to teaching high school students as a teacher for classes such as Spanish, English and yearbook. “My view of seeing the world has been shaped by this one big idea: working with others is the way to make change,” he says.
His experiences with a wide variety of students and teachers prepared him for his teaching position at San Quentin State Prison, where he educated primarily Mexican inmates in English and started an associates liberal arts program for them to earn degrees and prevent them from returning to their previous life that resulted in their imprisonment.
McPhetridge reflects, “We could have never built an Associate of Arts degree program at San Quentin without the cooperation of many folks, including volunteers from Bay Area colleges who served as our professors and teaching assistants, and certainly not without the inmates who helped us build momentum and inspire their fellow prisoners to enroll in classes.”
His experiences with inmates inspired him to return to public education, becoming the vice principal of AHS for three years before returning to graduate school and completing his doctorate at Harvard. He reflects on his time at San Quentin in relation to AHS, saying: “Really I learned the importance of teamwork and the power of collective action in both environments.”
McPhetridge cherishes his experience as AHS vice principal. “I look back on those days with such fondness and nostalgia,” he said. He especially remembers creating a poetry project with students named (r)Evolutionary Identity. He looks back on the project with pride saying it “was transformative to me and also for [the students] as it provided us a platform for developing our voices and stretching our creative wings.”
After, McPhetridge involved himself more heavily in the school district. He became principal at Alameda Science and Technology Institute (ASTI), then assistant superintendent for the district and is now currently interim superintendent.
McPhetridge has had a long history with AHS and its staff, including Academy humanities teacher Chris Carman. Although he does not have a close personal relationship with McPhetridge, Carman offers his support to him, stating, “Most of us were glad to see him become superintendent.” He echoes other teachers when he says that McPhetridge “has a great sense of humor and a warm personality,” and praises him for his “pragmatic viewpoint in working with schools and students.”
History teacher Tony Manno shares the same sentiments as Carman, describing McPhetridge as “very amicable, very friendly,” and articulate, in the sense that when he speaks, he knows what he is talking about. Manno sees McPhetridge as someone “important for the district,” and is excited to “see how he blossoms with actual responsibility.”
English teacher Janice Carroll reflects on what she described “a very positive working relationship with Superintendent McPhetridge.” She welcomes McPhetridge’s re-entry into the school district, saying, “I know I can work with him” because “he is on top of the current directions in education.” Carroll praises his “youthful, energetic, and enthusiastic presence” and hopes he will “be able to invest in teachers to meet twenty-first century challenges.”
In his new position, McPhetridge hopes to accomplish a number of goals in his service as interim superintendent. He strives to build stronger ties to the community colleges in the area to ensure a career path for high school graduates. With school bond measure I passing, McPhetridge hopes to put a strong focus on improving facilities at schools.
Other goals include putting science classes at more of a primacy for schools, teacher development, the implementation of common core, finding ways to cut costs and building stronger relationships with teacher unions.
McPhetridge places great emphasis on preparing students for their future, evidenced by his strong support for career technical education (CTE) and regional occupation programs (ROP). As part of his overall goals for the district, McPhetridge plans on building stronger partnerships with community colleges, and reintroducing and rebuilding CTE classes and ROP back into schools.
Concerning teaching, McPhetridge’s philosophy is more oriented as a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage.” He finds himself empowering students through communication and working together with individuals rather than speaking to everyone as a whole. “It’s a simple idea, but it’s an important one. We need to keep talking and working together to bring about positive change.”
McPhetridge values discussion and personal communication as means to improve society. “Students should use their learning to actually understand political issues and communicate their real need. It’s less about book learning and multiple choice, and more about critical thinking. Learning is not in books — learning is in dialogue,” he says. “Through dialogue, we make meaning of the world.”
While McPhetridge has high hopes for students in academic achievement, he also endeavors to create a better learning environment outside the classroom. He says he has an “affinity for LGBTQ rights” and is working to help “honor the rights and needs of all people, and reduce bullying in our campuses.”
He believes “Alameda thrives as a community when its citizens and students and families work together to accomplish audacious goals of collective betterment” and is “very grateful to those here that continue to teach [him] over and over again that we can do great things when we work together to help others.”
Aside from his passion for education, McPhetrige enjoys playing gardening, cooking, taking walks with his wife, and playing guitar. Having been a guitarist for a band in college, he reflects, “[Music] helps make meaning for me.”