Sean McPhetridge Builds Morale in Alameda Schools

Interim superintendent Sean McPhetridge test-drives the job he would love to have permanently.


Interim school superintendent gets the job permanently.

Photo by Chris Duffey

Update: Sean McPhetridge became the permanent superintendent in February.

The cancellation of the 60th Island Bowl—the annual varsity football game between Encinal and Alameda high schools—is not something Sean McPhetridge ever imagined would be his first big public issue as the interim superintendent of the Alameda Unified School District. But it was.

On Sept. 26 during a home game with Central-Antelope High, a fight broke out between the two teams after one Encinal player punched a helmetless Central-Antelope player and knocked him unconscious. Encinal players who were on the bench rushed onto the field to join in the melee, a direct violation of California Interscholastic Federation rules. Seven Encinal players involved had to be suspended for the team’s next game, the Island Bowl.

As the chief executive of AUSD, McPhetridge had to answer questions from several television reporters about why Alameda’s biggest sporting event of the year was cancelled. Despite protests from some players, students, and parents at both schools, the decision stood. Encinal High forfeited the game because it couldn’t field enough varsity players against Alameda. In the end, Encinal players and parents agreed with the decision. “Even if we didn’t have a choice, the [Encinal] administrators wanted to send a message,” McPhetridge says. “It was the right thing to do. Violence can’t be tolerated, and we can teach our way out of it.”

In July, the school board appointed McPhetridge interim superintendent to replace Superintendent Kirsten Vital, who left AUSD after six years to take another job in Southern California. His 10-month contract runs through June 30, 2015, and will pay him a salary of $180,000. No stranger to AUSD, McPhetridge had previously spent a decade here as an administrator and teacher.

McPhetridge assumed the top job for a district with 9,500 students, 539 teachers, and an 84 percent high school graduation rate. It has 10 elementary schools, two middle schools, two comprehensive high schools, a continuation high school, an early college high school, and an adult school. AUSD’s annual budget is about $90 million, and it has distinguished schools and high-achieving students.

In many ways, the superintendent’s job is the one that McPhetridge, 49, has been preparing for his whole career.

An Upland, Calif., native who attended Webb Prep School for Boys in Claremont, he studied English at UCLA and returned home after graduation. He was a waiter and mandolin player in a rock-and-roll band when a sixth-grade teacher put McPhetridge’s bilingual skills to use working with two kids from Nicaragua. That led to a teaching credential from Claremont Graduate School. He taught fifth-grade bilingual students and, later, English, Spanish, and yearbook. He and his wife, Kristin MacDougall, moved to the Bay Area in the 1990s for her job at Wink, an Alameda-based dot-com. McPhetridge worked as an ESL coordinator, college coordinator, and death row instructor at San Quentin State Prison before being hired at AUSD as an instructional vice principal at Alameda High School in 2000. He left to pursue his doctorate in education at Harvard University and returned to serve as director of secondary and career technical education and principal of the Alameda Science and Technology Institute. In 2010 he took the job as Kirsten Vital’s assistant superintendent.

It was a challenging time for him professionally. School board meetings were often contentious, and board members, such as new Mayor Trish Spencer, challenged Vital’s policies and treatment of employees and clashed with McPhetridge as AUSD’s presenter at the lectern. Vital had poor relationships with teachers and their union, the Alameda Education Association, though McPhetridge has worked to rebuild the relationship with Audrey Hyman, AEA’s president. Hyman says McPhetridge’s actions, such as giving teachers an integral role in the implementation of the new Common Core Standards, leave her optimistic for the future.

In 2010, McPhetridge helped implement Lesson Nine, AUSD’s elementary school anti-bullying curriculum, and helped found the District’s LGBTQ Roundtable, which allows staff and families to come together to talk about issues of tolerance and bullying. “I’ve always wanted to expand that work so we have more of a focus on students who come from experiences of difference and how we recognize, honor, and support them,” he says. “That’s something that’s always been a value of mine. That’s why I was a bilingual teacher, because I knew that these Mexican-American kids, Chicano kids, needed a pathway up. That was my value in prison. How do you give these people tools so they can counter oppression?”

November’s election saw Alameda voters approve Measure I, the $179.5 million AUSD school facilities bond measure that gives the district money for improvements at the high schools and at the elementary and middle schools. McPhetridge is grateful for the passage, since it reinforces his belief that Alameda values education—the reason he keeps coming back. “It’s a boon to the district and to families and students,” he says. “Our facilities are old. There’s a reason they call it Historic Alameda High School. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done at our facilities to keep kids and staff safe.”

McPhetridge says he’ll apply to be the new superintendent, and school board member Barbara Kahn is an ardent supporter. “Sean’s such a contrast to the previous administration,” she says. “He’s committed to openness and transparency. It’s a whole new ball game. The morale has gone through the ceiling. When he met with faculty at Encinal High, they gave him a standing ovation.”

Interestingly, McPhetridge and his wife live in San Francisco and decided not to have kids, but when two lesbian friends of theirs wanted to start a family, they asked McPhetridge to be their sperm donor. That child, Cole, is now 11 years old, plays saxophone at the California Jazz Conservancy in Berkeley, and lives in San Rafael. “I have a blended, modern, non-traditional family,” he says. “It also speaks to my advocacy over the years for LGBTQ issues.”

McPhetridge has goals as the interim superintendent. “I want to rebuild career technical education in this district, because 50 percent of jobs over the next 20 years won’t require a bachelor’s degree, but will require—for high-skills, high-wage, high-demand work—some post-secondary education,” he says. “I’d like to bring science back to prominence in the district’s curriculum. Math and language arts were emphasized in No Child Left Behind instead of science.”

And he would also like to find a lower-cost solution for the district office, which Vital moved in 2013 from the earthquake unsafe Historic Alameda High School to Marina Village for a new annual cost of $552,000.

Margie Sherratt, the former president of the school board, who, as principal of Alameda High School in 2000, hired McPhetridge for his first AUSD job, thinks he’d be an excellent choice for superintendent. “I think he has a broad vision of what things can be,” she says. “He understands the mores of this community and can move it forward in a way that’s not divisive.”

McPhetridge went into teaching because his parents—neither of whom graduated from high school—valued teaching greatly and saw it as the pathway to prosperity. He also views his job as service to others. “I feel like I’m a servant leader,” he says. “I think being part of a team matters. I want the community to feel like I’m the right person for the job. I have a history of working with people to reach common goals. I’ve learned you must engage the public.”

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