Gail Andrade Ahlas, the daughter of first-generation Americans, grew up in Santa Clara in the 1960s aspiring to attend college.
Her mother, whose roots are in Northern Italy, and father, whose family hails from the Azores archipelago off Portugal, helped her older brother pay tuition at private Santa Clara University. But when it came time for Ahlas to enroll at San Jose State University, she knew she was largely on her own.
She says she never asked her parents, with whom she remains close, for help.
"It was a traditional family," she said. "I never pushed it. I just knew."
But it didn't inhibit her. "You tell me no, it just makes me feistier, which helps me in my job," she said.
That job is running the 2,440-student Roseland School District in Santa Rosa — the fastest-growing district in Sonoma County, one that has opened two schools in two years.
Situated roughly west of Highway 101, south of Highway 12, and between Hearn Avenue and Stony Point Road, Roseland serves some of the county's poorest students.
Three-fifths of the students are considered English-language learners and the majority come from homes where at least one parent is not a high school graduate. Yet the district where 92 percent of students are Latino is posting dramatically improving test scores, earning national recognition for its charter high school that emphasizes college preparatory curriculum and, most recently, expanding its physical reach far beyond the streets of Roseland.
Standing squarely behind the transformation is Ahlas, 60. In perhaps her most ambitious move, she spearheaded the district's leap last year from its traditional neighborhood boundaries by opening a school on the campus of the former 130-year-old Ursuline High School in northeast Santa Rosa.
"She is kind of dangerous because she is passionate, with a plan," said Santa Rosa Junior College President Frank Chong. "She has a vision. She has a dream. She has a plan."
Chong, who sits on the advisory board of the district's innovative Roseland University Prep, said Ahlas is a "people person" who relates well to peers and students. But her conviction is fierce, he said.
"I think she has a reputation in the community of being relentless," he said.
Ahlas, who earns a $161,450 annual salary, is widely regarded among Sonoma County's leaders — in education and beyond — as a tireless cheerleader for a community of children and families that historically has been underserved.
As a newly minted superintendent in 2003, Ahlas proposed the creation of a charter high school that essentially shifted the Roseland district from just one of Santa Rosa City Schools' eight feeder districts into a self-contained kindergarten-through-high-school district. The move triggered grumbling from Santa Rosa City Schools officials, who complained the program was diverting kids from Elsie Allen High School and Cook Middle School, the schools Roseland elementary students traditionally have attended.
But today, many educators view the move as prescient and potentially a model for the future of education: linking each stage of a student's school experience under the same curricular program and with strong community involvement.
"She hasn't been this typical, come in and manage the system as it is, superintendent. She has created something different," said Tony Roehrick, superintendent of the Cabrillo Unified School District in Half Moon Bay. He spent five years as superintendent of the Bellevue School District, which borders Roseland to the south.