On a recent visit to Madison La Follette High School, it didn't take long for Savion Castro to run into an old friend.
Javell Heggs, a football and track coach at the school, reached out for a high five and a hug as the two reminisced about the newest Madison School Board member’s high school days. Castro, 25, was appointed to the board in July to fill the seat left open by Mary Burke’s resignation this summer.
“You always knew something was coming around with him,” Heggs, smiling, said of Castro.
Moments later, he fixed Castro’s shirt collar, adding with a laugh, “I still got to take care of you.”
Now, just six-and-a-half years after graduating from LHS, he is one of seven members of the School Board. His perspective as a relatively recent graduate — one of four applicants for the open seat who graduated in that time frame — was a motivation for his unanimous approval following a short conversation by the board members, with only a couple of the 28 other candidates mentioned at all.
“He is homegrown in Madison,” board member Nicki Vander Meulen said in support. “He’s had an (Individualized Education Program). He understands the disability system. He’s a minority male in Madison, Wisconsin.
“To me, what’s most important is kids see what they want to become.”
Within three months of his appointment, that connection to students can already be seen in Castro’s meeting with the West High School Black Student Union the week after a school security guard was fired — a decision later rescinded — for using the n-word in telling a student not to call him that word. The firing led to more than 1,000 students and staff walking out of the building Oct. 18 and marching to the Doyle Administration Building, where BSU executive committee members met with three district officials — interim superintendent Jane Belmore, School Board president Gloria Reyes and Castro — for more than 90 minutes.
Castro arrived in Madison in second grade after living his early years in Beloit. Over the next 10 years, he attended Kennedy Elementary School, Whitehorse Middle School and LHS. Within that decade, Castro estimates he moved 15 to 16 times, sleeping on friends’ couches or at his aunt’s house on Madison’s east side as he and his mother adjusted to a chronic back injury that left her on a fixed income.
“As a kid, I had no idea what the hell was going on,” Castro said. “All I knew is that there were days I’d come home and we were packing up and moving, and I was like, ‘This is just how life is.’ Now I know what the housing market’s like, I know tenant protection laws are lax, I know the racial wealth gap and why the majority of black people have never owned homes.”
While he jokes it got him “used to moving every year” before he got to college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, it also significantly affected his worldview — from tenants’ rights to the need for student trauma supports like social workers and teacher training in schools.
The youngest member in the history of the Madison School Board, according to board secretary Barb Osborn, Castro brings his perspective to an already progressively minded group, one which he says has “a lot of opportunity” ahead to make Madison a better place, especially for its students of color and those with low-income backgrounds. With a superintendent hire, a pair of referenda likely next year and ongoing work on topics like behavior and advanced learning, Castro said it felt “cool” when the board put its trust in him with the appointment.
“But right after that feeling of coolness, it was really humbling because the responsibility is so big,” he said. “We cannot afford to mess this up. This was a moment of them investing in young leadership, and (me) not wanting to let anyone down.”
Homeless with an IEP
Castro spent many nights growing up sleeping at his aunt’s house — one of a few residences he regularly moved between during his youth.
That gave Mikki Smith, an administrator in the Madison Metropolitan School District, a close look at the challenges he was facing: a stutter, homelessness and poor attendance early in his school career. Castro recalls the difficulty of making course material matter to him.
“Putting up with that instability at home made school difficult, where I would know course material, but I’d struggle with, how is this relevant to my life right now?” Castro said.
That question stuck with him through middle school as he remained “chronically truant,” he said. An IEP for his stutter allowed him to get one-on-one intervention with a reading specialist and improve it, but the regular moving continued to take a toll. An IEP is the plan that outlines what specialized support and instructional services a school district will provide to students with special needs.
But in high school, that began to change. Smith recalls seeing a child who took on more responsibility — joining the football and track teams, working outside of school to support his family and beginning to care about his grades.
“Finding that connection, that sense of belonging, being a part of a club and part of a community, I think that he was able to thrive but ... also understanding that there’s a responsibility there,” Smith said.
Castro attributes some of that growth to PEOPLE, a pre-college enrichment program for students of color in partnership with the UW-Madison, where he found a community of students and adults with whom he identified.
“PEOPLE program let me experience education with a lot of students that looked like me, and going through the same things I did,” Castro said. “Having tutors and mentors that also looked like me and went through similar things and being able to form a positive identity of yourself with good academic rigor, as well, was really instrumental.”
One of his tutors there, Matthew Braunginn, recalls Castro as a “really bright” student always willing to engage in debates about sports, politics and the world.
“I didn’t want to, particularly with black and brown students, have them shy away from the world that they faced,” Braunginn said. “He was somebody who was very aware of his place in the world as a black student.”
Even with those skills, Braunginn recognized Castro faced tough odds in Madison, where Braunginn had also grown up.
“You can go down the checklist of marks against you, somebody whose profile by all rights wasn’t even supposed to make it to college,” Braunginn said. “Let alone be on School Board and graduate from college and be doing what he’s doing.”
Sitting in the library at La Follette, Castro was hopeful his new position would allow him to help students like him find a path.
“Coming back, having that time to reflect on it and be a little bit more mature about my experience, it’s definitely special to be able to give back in this way,” Castro said. “I really want to be able to do a good job, because I’m certainly not the only kid that went through that ….. Being able to lend that perspective to our board is really important.”
Finding his ‘North Star’
Castro’s interest in politics began at an early age, with an aunt and uncle deployed to the Middle East.
That absence and sense of how such decisions affected his life gave him “an appreciation for the decisions policymakers make and how that affects people,” he said. An appreciation, however, didn’t mean he knew how he could get involved himself.
That changed over his four years at LHS and early years at UW-Madison, which included meeting both President Barack Obama and receiving a shoutout during a speech by First Lady Michelle Obama.
The president visited La Follette in 2010 before campaigning for gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett, meeting with sports teams that were practicing that afternoon. Castro received a handshake, but didn’t appreciate the significance of the moment until two years later, he said, when he volunteered for the Obama campaign during his senior year of high school.
“Having that physical touch made it seem more possible that you could be involved in this work,” he said. “Especially with the type of learner I am, more physical, experiential learner, having that tangible, physical touch is really important for me to fully understand something.”
Paul Kendrick was the youth outreach director for the Obama campaign in 2012 and has stayed in touch with Castro since they worked on the campaign together. He said it was easy to forget the senior was still in high school at the time, given how well he fit in with the college students and campaign staff.
“I watched him kind of grow into his own as an advocate, but a thoughtful one,” Kendrick said. “Someone who really wanted feedback and took in different perspectives, but realized how valuable his own perspective was.”
That campaign helped shape Castro’s future.
“Having that guiding passion and dedication, it seemed like everything else fell into place after that,” Castro said. “I had a North Star. Everything I did in school had a purpose because I knew what I wanted to do when I got out.”
Two years later, the importance of his perspective was validated again, as Michelle Obama shared Castro’s story to an audience at the Overture Center. She was campaigning for gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke, who was on the School Board at the time. Castro was an intern on the campaign. Obama said Castro’s inspiring story was one that played out all over the country, encouraging the crowd to keep fighting for “kids just like Savion.”
“To have someone like the first lady recognize a story like mine was really cool,” Castro said. “Her being able to connect it to the broader American story was really cool.”
“Understatement,” he added, smiling after a brief pause.
Though Burke didn’t win that campaign, she continued serving on the School Board until this past summer, when Castro took over her seat.
“If someone were going to write a story, that’s how it’d be,” Castro said. “The symbolism is not lost on me sometimes, especially where we come from in our different backgrounds of life.”
Black in Madison
Most of Castro’s political focus throughout high school was at a national level.
That shifted abruptly when, in October 2013, the UW freshman read the Race to Equity report that brought Madison’s troubling racial disparities into focus. Until that point, he said, he hadn’t paid much attention to the board that had governed 10 years of his school experience or groups like Madison’s City Council.
“Reading that report in college in a sociology class really changed my perspective on politics,” Castro said. “It just redefined my interaction with politics, so I really started paying attention to the local level.”
He had already experienced some of it firsthand, he acknowledged, and had felt pressure in certain classes in high school to speak on behalf of a group that he didn’t feel he — or anyone — could adequately represent on their own. He sought to find “the right balance between giving your experience being from this community but not speaking on behalf of the community as a whole.”
“There was a lot of having to explain your community to people, which is always a difficult situation,” Castro said. “By no means do I want to speak for every mixed person, black person, Puerto Rican person that’s in the community. But at the same time, folks need to hear these perspectives and voices.”
That was just one of the balances Castro has had to understand about being black in Madison. Another came during his time at UW, which he called a “rocky ride.” That included being put on academic suspension after his junior year. It was a turning point at which he felt “a lot of initial shame,” but eventually found “that motivation again to keep going,” enrolling at Madison College and working on a campaign for now-Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes before returning to the UW to graduate in December 2018.
Part of that motivation was understanding what led to the suspension.
“While some of it’s your fault, not all of it’s your fault because the university clearly struggles with educating students like you, whether it’s first-generation students, students of color, students from low-income backgrounds who didn’t necessarily feel adequately supported throughout the whole process,” Castro said. “Finding that balance between finding the responsibility you bear for that and what about the system can you, in your position now, take from that and try and improve.”
The PEOPLE program’s Braunginn recalls hearing that perspective from a student who understood the obstacles for students of color.
“He understands the dynamics at play, that you can try as hard as you like and sometimes the world just pushes you back,” Braunginn said. “He understands those dynamics quite well. I think that’s rare.”
When he was appointed to the board in July, Castro was a 24-year-old staffer in the Capitol office of state Rep. Shelia Stubbs, D-Madison.
Three months into his tenure, he’s turned 25 and left that Capitol job in pursuit of something more focused on policy, he said, as the politics at the Capitol became too much for him. While looking for that next job, Castro’s been on a listening tour of sorts, visiting as many schools as he can, working with the AVID/TOPS programs and meeting with the district’s student senates.
“Helping students find their democratic voice is one of my favorite parts of the job,” he said.
He’s hopeful he can spread that influence to others in their mid-20s considering Madison as a place to settle down, especially people of color who doubt the city is a place for them.
“A priority of mine would be to build that trust with young parents of color who are moving here who hear that Madison is one of the worst places to raise a black family, that we have a commitment (and) that we are working on it,” Castro said.
Fixing the problems that make Madison a challenging place to live for some people won’t come easy, he knows, but as someone who hopes to have kids and raise them here, it’s important for him to keep at the work.
“I think it’s going to be a long and arduous road, like all things have proven to be in our country’s history,” Castro said. “We’ve got to be in it for the long haul.”
And he hopes to play a key role in that long haul, planning to run for re-election in the spring and ready to prove wrong anyone who questions his ability because of his age. He said he enjoys the opportunity to show people he’s more than what they might expect, something he credits to often being the only black student in his classrooms.
“I’m kind of used to it, so I kind of relish the opportunity to prove folks wrong if that doubt’s there,” he said. “I do the reading, I do the research, I’ve lived some of these experiences. There’s no reason why I can’t contribute.”