Birmingham City Schools Superintendent Kelley Castlin-Gacutan, or "Dr. G," speaks to a group of JROTC students Friday, April 8, 2016, in Birmingham, Ala. Castlin-Gacutan received a Master of Education in Early Childhood Education from Brenau's Norcross campus. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

Rock Star

Dr. G rides shotgun with her linebacker-like driver at the wheel. We’ve just left the Jackson-Olin High School football stadium at 14th and F in Ensley, where 350 uniformed JROTC cadets passed in review before her, the celebrity dignitary. We’re about to hook a left on 20th Street for a quick run through Tuxedo Junction (Yep, the place in a song written about by a black Birmingham-born trumpet player but made famous in the big-band era by white guys like Glenn Miller). There, we will get on the interstate to go back downtown where Dr. G will be the visiting celebrity in the cavernous municipal auditorium before another several hundred adoring high school kids.

As we wait for the light to change, I tell Dr. G that my old elementary school, Baker, was another 10 blocks straight down Avenue F. I excitedly point out other familiar sights and landmarks. About six or eight blocks to the right is the now-dormant steel mill, which covered the sky with orange smoke when I lived nearby and where five of my nine uncles worked. We cross what used to be the “car line,” the street where my dad caught the trolley to his job at the electric company, which provided the power for those electric buses. There’s the place I got my bimonthly haircut. Across the street the Methodist church where one of my Boy Scout troops met. The small storefront bakery where I’d buy a couple of brownies and try not to eat them until I walked up to 19th and E to the “picture show.”

“David,” Dr. G says in of those gentle generation-dividing joshes. “Really? ‘Picture show’?”

She asks whether the neighborhood had changed much. “Not much,” I lie.

Dr. Kelley Castlin-Gacutan, or Dr. G as she is usually known, gives her driver a thumbs up as she rushes to a last minute meeting before departing the central office for several events. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)
Birmingham City Schools Superintendent Dr. Kelley Castlin-Gacutan, or Dr. G as she is known, gives her driver a thumbs-up as she rushes to a last-minute meeting before departing the central office for several events. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

Dr. G, officially Kelley Castlin-Gacutan, BU ’95, has just finished the first year of a four-year contract as superintendent of the Birmingham, Alabama, public school system. When I was a Baker pupil, a couple of black women worked in the cafeteria and the school custodian was a lanky lighter-skinned African-American. The rest of the students as well as the faculty and staff were white like me. Today, the photographer and I, along with one tall company commander, were about the only white faces in the stadium. The school system in my day was totally segregated. Today, with 24,000 students, the city school system is 93 percent African-American, 6 percent Hispanic and 1 percent Caucasian – an overly tipped scale in the city of about 220,000 whose population as of the 2010 census was 73.4 percent black, 22.3 percent white and 3.6 percent Hispanic. It comprises seven high schools, eight middle schools and 27 K-8 and elementary schools.

Dr. G, who is 46, grew up near here, too. Her father, who would have been the same age as me, actually went to the same school we just left, but it was then Western Olin High School, built in the 1950s as the segregated city’s third high school for African-Americans. She spent the first five years of her life in the southwestern section of the city near Elmwood Cemetery, Birmingham’s most prominent burial place. Like virtually everything in Birmingham when I was growing up, even the cemetery was racially segregated until the family of a Vietnam war casualty who lived nearby won a lawsuit to have their son buried there in 1970 – the year that Castlin-Gacutan was born. Perhaps ironically, the city school system had desegregated by court order on Sept. 10, 1963 ‒ five days before the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. The parents of Denise McNair, one of the four children killed in that horrible moment, moved their daughter’s body to Elmwood in 2007.

‘I had a wonderful childhood, very structured, very supportive parents. I’m grateful for that.’

However, Castlin-Gacutan had her kindergarten-through-high school experiences in the Birmingham suburb Hueytown, NASCAR’s equivalent of Vatican City. The city’s official seal pays homage to its association with big-time automobile racing with two checkered flags beneath the American flag. This holy city’s cardinals have names like Allison, Stricklin, Farmer and Bonnett. Dr. G and I can tie that back to Ensley, too: The late NASCAR driver Neil Bonnett, a month older than me, grew up two doors down on 26th Street.

“I would say that I was quite sheltered,” she says of her life in Hueytown. “It was a big deal to come back into the city [Birmingham] in those days, even though it was only about 15 miles away. We really just did our shopping, school and church right there in our community. I had the same friends from early childhood all the way through. I had a wonderful childhood, very structured, very supportive parents. I’m grateful for that.”

Teacher Pleaser

As she describes her family life, “I actually had three parents.” She lived in Hueytown with her mother, Beverly, and stepfather, James Logan, a former U.S. Army master sergeant who juggled shift work in Birmingham’s steel industry with his second job, along with his wife, at the U.S. Social Security Administration office just a couple of blocks away from the Birmingham schools headquarters. However, she summered in another steel town – Gary, Indiana ‒ with her biological father, Laythan Pickett, who graduated from the same school where we spent the morning at the JROTC ceremony. She and her Hueytown brother Jimmy, who now lives in Houston, Texas, and three Gary sisters, were part of an extended “hard-working, middle class family.”

Dr. G laughs while speaking to a group of students inside the Boutwell Auditorium in downtown Birmingham. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)
Dr. G laughs while speaking to a group of students inside Boutwell Auditorium in downtown Birmingham, about 20 minutes from her hometown of Hueytown, Alabama. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

None of the parents attended a four-year college, but Castlin-Gacutan caught the bug early. Starting in her first school years, she says, “I wanted to be a teacher pleaser.” She particularly wanted to make proud her Hueytown Elementary first-grade teacher, Miss Davis. “I still can’t remember her first name,” Dr G says. “We didn’t know our teachers’ had first names in those days.” (For the record, we learn later that Dr G’s most influential teacher was Catherine Davis, who died in 2008).

“I asked her one day, ‘How do you become a teacher?’ And Miss Davis said, ‘You have to work hard and go to college.’ When she told me that, it just sort of stuck with me.”

When Miss Davis learned that her young charge harbored fledgling aspirations to teach, she loaded up the young Dr. G with extra worksheets.

“I would take them home and I would play school every afternoon,” says Castlin-Gacutan. “I vividly recall my pink bedroom walls, and I would line my dolls up in my room, I had my chalk – at the time I didn’t have a chalkboard, initially. Eventually, I got a chalkboard for Christmas, because my mom got tired of me writing on the walls. But whatever Miss Davis’ lesson was for that day, I would replicate it at home with my dolls. And, I remember my mom, one day in particular, peeked through the door. She had been standing there for a while before I recognized she was there. I turned around, and she said, ‘Darling, I know you’re going to be a teacher one day.’” When you think about the role that parents play in encouraging children to pursue their aspirations – at that moment, she could have totally shot me down for writing on the walls. But she didn’t. Throughout my life, when I think about my parents, each of them have done nothing but pour into me and give me the encouragement, the support, whether it would be going to special programs, whether it would be helping me to pursue my education, they were there. And it has meant a lot. It still means a lot to this very day.”

Castlin-Gacutan earned a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology from Tennessee State University in 1991 and moved to Atlanta. While looking into continuing her education in graduate school, she serendipitously noticed a circular on a bulletin board about teaching opportunities abroad. After a detailed application process and a series of interviews, she wound up in Kagoshima, Japan, teaching English primarily to ninth and 10th graders.

“That was invaluable. Whenever I think about an opportunity to continue teaching in other countries, it is still very attractive to me. At some point in this journey, I really want to have more experiences like that. It intrigues me. First of all, I love teaching. I tell employees here that, even though my title is superintendent, the heart of my work is teaching. I feel very strongly about that. I feel strongly about the influence that teachers have on young people. You just never know how far that influence goes.”

Committed Educators

A Brenau degree on display in the office of Dr. G. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)
A Brenau degree is displayed in the office of Dr. G. She credits Brenau’s master’s degree program in early childhood education for her professional success. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

When Castlin-Gacutan returned to the United States, she continued teaching for another six years at Fulton County’s Spalding Drive Elementary School in metro Atlanta – and she enrolled in the master’s degree program in early childhood education that Brenau offered at its Norcross campus. Subsequently, she earned a doctorate in educational leadership from Nova Southeastern University.

But, she adds, “I’m so proud to be a Brenau graduate.” The program for her was the right fit at the right time. Her instructors all had professional experience as teachers and administrators in K-12 teachers, and so did all of her classmates in the graduate program. Perhaps more important, all of her classmates were also experienced teachers and educators from throughout the metro Atlanta area, so they taught one another.

“From the first day, [that program] began making a difference to me professionally,” she recalls. “We were not simply listening to lectures. We were collaborating, sharing experiences, learning from each other and teaching each other. We’d go to classes evenings and weekends and then take what we learned back to our schools with us and apply it the very next day.”

‘Being in the Brenau program with other educators who were all as committed as I was to becoming even better educators made all the difference.’

Since then, she has spent the bulk of her career in Georgia, including a stint in higher education at Shorter University as  a professor of graduate teacher education programs and director of the Center for Teacher Preparation. Sandra Leslie, who is retiring this year as dean of the Brenau College of Education, was at the time the Shorter administrator who helped recruit Castlin-Gacutan for the position. When I told Leslie that I had visited Castlin-Gacutan, the dean immediately replied, “You were in the presence of a rock star, my friend.”

If “rock star” in education-speak means something equivalent to “turnaround specialist,” that seems to fit a pattern in Castlin-Gacutan’s career in Georgia schools, starting with her first administrative role in Marietta, later in Clarke County and finally in Bibb, where she was a top administrator in that middle Georgia school system when Birmingham came calling. She started out in the central Georgia district as an assistant superintendent, but moved comfortably into the interim superintendent’s job. Although she was not considered for the permanent position because the search committee sought someone who had previous experience as a superintendent, those who knew her said they believed it was only a matter of time before some district tapped her talent. It just happened to be Birmingham.

“I spent a good hour on the telephone with the search committee [from Birmingham] when they called me about her,” Leslie said. “That school district has had really big problems, and I told them that, if anyone can fix them, Kelley will. She is absolutely phenomenal. She works harder than anybody I know. She’s brilliant. She’s beautiful. There ought to be a law against Kelleys.”

The Birmingham school board obviously saw something, too, when it voted unanimously to hire her, effective May 2015, from a pool of more than 50 applicants.

Following the death of her first husband, she married Pedro Gacutan, a retired U.S. Army first sergeant and information systems chief. He is currently an information technology specialist for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They have a blended family of four children, including son, Kyle, 21, a veteran shooting guard on the Columbia University basketball team.

In between her speeches, meetings and other administrative duties, Castlin-Gacutan takes time to speak with students about any concerns they may have and sometimes even poses for a selfie or two. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)
In between her speeches, meetings and other administrative duties, Castlin-Gacutan takes time to speak with students about any concerns they may have and sometimes even poses for a selfie or two. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

Castlin-Gacutan says the Birmingham job had not been on her radar until one day her father mentioned matter-of-factly that “Birmingham City Schools is looking for a superintendent.” Just a few days later, a Birmingham friend called her about the job. Dr. G. took the two calls together to be some kind of omen, so she applied, “and here I am!”

“It’s good to be back. It’s good to be able to do this work in a school district that is really hungry for more innovation and a community that is so engaged. It’s a great opportunity.”

The board president, Birmingham lawyer Randall L. Woodfin, said the district already had been addressing some of the major issues it faced, like threats to accreditation. However, he said the system was counting on Castlin-Gacutan to lead on solutions to serious problems including graduation rates – getting kids excited about school, like she was as a Hueytown first-grader, to see the value in sticking around long enough to win diplomas. When you see high school juniors and seniors mobbing her for selfies like we did that day at Boutwell Auditorium, you have to think she has made some inroads in that department in her first year on the job. I mean, I can’t even remember who my school superintendent was – if, in fact, I ever knew.

Somebody Believed

Following the Jackson-Olin ceremony that celebrated the 100th anniversary of the creation of the junior ROTC program in U.S. high schools, Dr. G walked briskly, with heels clicking on the concrete ramp-way under the seats in municipal auditorium to the stage, where she would be the featured speaker. The career academy approach is designed, says Dr. G, to help students set some goals that will enable them to focus on what they need to get from their high school foundation to go on to college or get jobs in chosen fields. Cohorts of dozens of students wearing the same brightly colored shirts – a different color for each school that the cohorts represented – sat in neat, disciplined sections, very much like the standing groups from earlier that morning at the military-oriented parade event at Jackson-Olin.

There was already a smattering of applause as students in the audience recognized her and more as she stepped into the light from the huge screen at the back of the stage that bore the Birmingham City Schools’ motto: Believe. Create. Succeed.

And, when Dr. G spoke, they listened.

Castlin-Gacutan watches as JROTC students march past during a pass in review ceremony Friday, April 8, 2016, in Birmingham, Ala. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)
Castlin-Gacutan watches as JROTC students march past during a pass in review ceremony Friday, April 8, 2016, in Birmingham, Ala. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

She said some of the usual motivational stuff that you might expect from the keynote speaker at such an occasion: “You are leaders. You have the ability to do what you want to do.”

But she also reminded them to to lose sight of how they got to where they are. “There is a lot to be said for listening to people who have gone before you,” she says. “We are all where we are today because somebody believed in us.”

There’s been some good news and bad news during Castlin-Gacutan’s first year. It started upbeat with a voter-approved $8 million tax increase to pay for things like arts programs that other school districts around the country subject to wholesale financial extermination. Graduation rates showed a nice uptick.

Of course, there were “routine” issues with which public school superintendents, well, routinely deal: concerns over school bus safety, problems related to transferring students from outdated schools so they could be renovated, less-than-acceptable student performance on proficiency tests, ongoing arguments over charter schools.

But there were bigger things, too. By midyear, 18 Birmingham schools wound up on the “failing” list published by the state Department of Education to motivate under-performing local schools to do better jobs of educating students. The troubling aspect of that: A 2013 state law enables parents to move their kids out of schools on the list into presumably better-performing ones that are not listed. And, it provides tax credits for expenses parent incur in the process even it it means putting their kids in private schools. Plus, if schools lose headcount, they lose commensurate amounts of per capita funding.

Some ‘New’ Old Things

Although the freshman superintendent inherited many of the issues, she’s getting high marks in the media and with the public for not ducking or passing the buck on any of them.  She’s pushing for more open communication and transparency, more professional development for teachers, making certain that students days are filled with learning opportunities, and – in the spirit of her comments at Boutwell Auditorium about learning from the past and predecessors – trying out some “new” old things.

For example, one of the new old things she plans to try in high schools is setting aside the concept of heavy concentration of one course for a short period of time, then moving on to the next course. By studying, say, math, science and history in smaller doses throughout the school year, students can have more time to master the content, really learn it, and perform better on proficiency tests and college entrance exams because what they learned is fresher. That means students will have a seven-period day, taking multiple courses every day, instead of an “A day” for one course and a “B day” for another.

“It’s not popular,” she says of the change, “but we are in a place where we have to do some things differently.”

Board President Woodfin explained in an interview that Dr. G stood out among other applicants for the job because, “She was born and raised here. She’s had international and global experience. Now we are bringing somebody home who’ll make a difference in our school system. She’s a valid, sincere, genuine and passionate leader who has the vision to continue to move us forward.”

‘In the almost 52 weeks that she has been with us, she has done an outstanding job in all the areas that define a superintendent.’

“I think she has been a great leader,” says Woodfin, who born and educated in the Birmingham area and who is now a staff lawyer in the city government. “In the almost 52 weeks that she has been with us, she has done an outstanding job in all the areas that define a superintendent – in academics, in operations, in finance, in the spirit and enthusiasm, in employee morale, in building relationships. Prior to her coming, people in the community were accustomed to seeing their school leaders and the superintendents always on TV and in the newspapers but usually not in the best light. That’s changed with Dr. G. She has been quietly effective and gained a lot of credibility, not only in talking about what’s good about the schools but also about what’s wrong and how we are going to address it and fix it and close the academics and achievement gaps.”

Dr. G speaks to a crowd of junior students joining various academies. She worked in Marietta, Clarke County and Bibb County schools before returning home to become the Birmingham superintendent. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)
Dr. G speaks to a crowd of junior students joining various academies. She worked in Marietta, Clarke County and Bibb County schools before returning home to become the Birmingham superintendent. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

“And you’re right,” he added. “I didn’t know who my school superintendent was, either. It’s a pretty good sign of how effective she has been with the kids when they know her and want to be around her.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge Castlin-Gacutan faces, however, is Birmingham itself. And, in a city with a legacy of racial divisiveness and a veritable textbook definition of the concepts of white flight and private “segregation academies,” she says she wants to create more racial diversity throughout the system as more and more white families with school-age children seem to be edging back inside the city limits. She expresses and evangelizes the idea that a community’s commitment to its education system – financially, politically, spiritually and emotionally – is the heart and soul of that community’s economic growth and development.

“One of the things I’ve said from the very beginning since I’ve been here is that one of our core values is diversity,” she explains in a conference room near her office in Birmingham’s downtown core. “We want to be able to attract more families and have more options for families, students and parents. As we work on our strategic planning efforts, we’re keeping those things in mind. There’s a lot of energy in the city right now, a lot of revitalization,  a lot of millennials moving in. There’s a buzz, people wanting to move back into the city, and we have to make that possible for them. So, it’s an exciting time to be here.”


David Morrison is the editor of Brenau Window magazine and vice president for communications and publications at the university.

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