Juan Castro Jr. likes to say he’s part of the furniture at Pleasanton Unified. After all, the 48-year-old groundskeeper has been in the district for 40 years altogether -- both as an employee and as a student.
"Anything I’m going to get into, I’m usually going to be in it for the long haul," Castro said during a recent interview. "I laughed just the other day thinking about this -- the only thing I've been doing longer than coming here, is going to the same place to get my hair cut."
This dedication is one reason he was selected as the district's Classified Employee of the Year. And Castro recently found out that he is one of five winners of the Alameda County Office of Education's Classified Employee of the Year contest, earning him a spot in the statewide competition as well.
"Juan Castro is an extremely positive person -- always upbeat and eager to help," said Myla Grasso, the district's director of operations, who nominated him this year for the award. "He brings solutions to issues and has the safety and security of students and staff at the heart of all the work he does."
This was the third time Castro was nominated for the district Classified Employee of the Year honor. Jacob Berg, principal at Lydiksen Elementary, had nominated Castro twice before.
"Juan Castro is one of those people that others want to get behind if for no other reason than he makes you feel like your issue, project or situation is the most important thing he is dealing with at that time," Berg said. "His consistently positive attitude leaves you with the feeling that not only will he get it done, he will get it done quickly and better than anyone else."
Castro's PUSD journey began at Pleasanton Elementary School, a K-8 school that once stood at the current site of the district office. His parents were also longtime district employees, with his mother putting in 30 years and his father 24 -- at the times of each of their respective retirements, his mother was a campus monitor at Pleasanton Middle School and his father was head custodian at Harvest Park.
After kindergarten at Pleasanton Elementary, he then transferred to Valley View Elementary, before returning to Pleasanton Elementary for sixth and seventh grade. At that point, the school closed, and he and his fellow classmates were "shipped" -- as he said -- to Harvest Park to conclude their middle school years. He graduated from Amador Valley High School in 1988.
While a student at Amador, he participated in the regional occupational program (ROP), where he learned, among other things, to climb trees using a harness, a skill that serves him well to this day.
After graduating from Amador, Castro went to Ohlone College for a year, and then went to work full-time for a local grocery store he had worked for through middle and high school. For a year and a half, he was one of the store’s owners.
"I had a partner who wasn't playing fair, so I got out, took a few months off," Castro said. "Started working here in the summer of '91 as a sub, and quickly just got into it and ran with it."
And he's been with PUSD ever since.
There is no such thing as an average day on the job, he said. Of the total five men in the grounds department, two are permanently stationed at Amador and Foothill high schools, respectively, while the other three are floating as part of the mobile crew, including Castro. ("Every campus is my campus," he says.)
As the senior member of his department, his primary focus is mowing the district's large fields, but when a grounds-related emergency arises, he's the first call. Some days, he might be chopping the limbs off a downed tree, other days he's confronting a water main leak.
Animals feature prominently in Castro's work too. He's dealt with deer, rabbit infestations, snakes -- several years ago he was sent out to search for a mountain lion after a sighting near Vintage Hills Elementary.
Recently he set out with fellow groundsmen to take care of a goose feces situation at Hart Middle School. They arrived at 4 a.m. and were in the process of watering down and eliminating the excrement when he encountered what he thought was a cat. But after tracking the animal, he realized that in fact, it was no cat: four skunks had taken up residence on-site. Luckily, they were later able to capture and release the animals without any spraying taking place.
Castro does get to interact with students from time to time, from casual banter to helping out with class garden projects.
He remembers once being called in to Walnut Grove Elementary to deal with some "widowmakers" -- precariously poised dead tree limbs, so-dubbed for their dangerous potentials should they fall. He shimmied up the tree using a harness, and when he looked down, two classes of students were gathered below, watching him operate.
He gave them a show, flipping upside down in his harness -- along with a safety talk and cross-section disks from the branches so the teachers could count tree rings with their students.
"I work outside," Castro said. "It doesn't get any better than that."
His job is at times necessarily messy, but he laughs when he's fixing a water main break and passersby wrinkle their noses at the muddy process.
"I'm playing in the mud," he said. "Who would've thought, I can grow up and get a job, playing in the mud."
Further cementing his place in the district, in 2009 he married a seventh-grade teacher from Harvest Park Middle School. They met after 65 pine trees had been removed from Pleasanton Middle School, and Castro was bringing firewood from the downed trees to those who wanted it, including Laura Heston.
A year and a half later, they started dating, and three years after that they got married -- their wedding's theme was "a match made in firewood."
Castro may be a constant part of the furniture, but he's witnessed much change over the years in the district and in Pleasanton as a city. He's seen new middle and elementary schools arise; he's seen fields where the occasional pheasant-hunter used to roam transform into Hacienda Business Park.
"A lot has changed," Castro said.
The announcement of the PUSD award was a complete surprise, Castro said -- he was fixing a water main break when Grasso called him and the other groundskeepers in for a special meeting. This year, the nominations had been kept under wraps, and he had had no inkling of his selection. He was officially honored at the March 13 school board meeting.
And in early April, the Alameda County Office of Education announced that Castro was one of its five Classified Employees of the Year who will now move on to the state level competition. The other county-wide award recipients include Yu Zhen Li from Oakland Unified, Cindy Zecher from Alameda Unified, Susan Glenn from New Haven Unified and Leonard Pleasant from Castro Valley Unified.
The state-level honorees will be named sometime this month.
"Juan has a difficult position, but he focuses on what he needs to get done, completes the task, and moves to his next assignment," Berg said. "He is a focused and committed worker, without question."
"I'm dedicated," Castro said. "I've been here a long time, I'm always looking at the best interests for the school district, and I'm always trying to figure out whatever I can do, and make it better."
"There's a handful of us left that are part of the furniture," he continued. "We've got new people coming in, and I look forward to working with them, and hopefully they'll be a part of the furniture."