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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.

"I think they look at the entirety of these students' lives and not just this little box we call schooling," he said. "I'm sort of in awe of everything she has done."

Ahlas spent nine years as a special education teacher, instructing students with hearing impairment. She describes being drawn to special education while in high school after following a boy with hearing aids to his classroom and eventually becoming an aide.

Five years after she was hired as principal at Sheppard Elementary School, Ahlas was honored by former President Bill Clinton at the White House when the school earned a National Blue Ribbon award. She is described by her peers as a visionary and many of her subordinates call her a dedicated and enthusiastic mentor.

She is a devotee of a system in which teachers are required to meet weekly over the course of the school year to address identified areas of concern including written grammar, math skills and, recently, reports that Roseland's high school graduates were struggling in college.

She attends some of those meetings, but said she does not direct the outcome.

"I love looking at the big picture. I love connecting the dots for kids," she said. "I rely on my leadership team to come up with answers. I trust the process."

She would rather roam the halls and playgrounds of the district's six campuses than go to power lunches or network.

"That's not my fave," she said of networking. "I do it when needed."

Yet it was networking with area philanthropists and leaders as the idea for Roseland University Prep was germinating a decade ago that proved crucial to the school's success.

The list of the school's supporters and donors is a who's who of Sonoma County leadership.

"She asked me if I would form an advisory board," said advocate Susan Moore, who put together a list of about 60 people who donate time, money and influence in support of the school. "I tried to put together an A-team that could raise funds but also so the kids knew they had a safety net."

In addition to the school's promise of requiring all students to complete college preparatory curriculum in order to graduate, Moore and others say they were drawn to support RUP because of Ahlas's open-door policy for for members of the community.

"We really welcome it," Ahlas said.

In addition to SRJC's Chong, the advisory board includes Sonoma State University President Ruben Armi?na, Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch, philanthropist Connie Codding, Exchange Bank President William Schrader and former Santa Rosa Mayor Jane Bender.

"Gail has really trusted me in that regard," Moore said of the establishment of the board. "I do tell her if so-and-so wants to be on the advisory board. She doesn't give me carte blanche."

Ahlas credited Moore with rounding up "people who would have had no reason to set foot in Roseland."

Ahlas's tendency to hire new teachers and groom principals and leaders from within has earned praise from some who applaud her focus on the district's mission; it has also made her target of criticism in some circles where the practice is seen as overly insular.

All of Roseland's principals began as teachers in the district.

"When she hires somebody within the district, we all know them already," said Aaron Prysock, co-president of Roseland's 100-member teachers union. "We are comfortable with their style. It makes it easier than if it's a total stranger."

"I don't have experience with anything different," he said.

Former Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools Carl Wong said it's a strategy that should be mirrored, not criticized.

"As far as cultivating a culture, as far as hiring staff, every superintendent, every governing board absolutely should be engaged in exactly the same practices," he said. "When you hire, what you are hiring is not just the immediate employee or team member. You are building that culture.

"It seems odd that there will be some criticism," he said.

Ahlas faced perhaps her greatest criticism in her early years as new superintendent. She was accused of culling the teaching staff and loading the ranks with young teachers who would be more likely follow her philosophy.

"She is the mama duck and she wants everyone to follow along," said Helen O'Donnell, a California Teachers Association representative who helped some staffers navigate a significant wave of departures from the district in 2006. "Gail is very much a matriarch."

Today more than 70 percent of Roseland's teachers have 10 or fewer years of teaching experience in the district, according to California Teachers Association records. Twenty-seven percent have been in a Roseland classroom between 11 and 20 years and 3 percent have more than 20 years' experience.

At least one veteran teacher, who asked not to be identified because she still works in the district, said the early days of Ahlas's tenure were fraught with tension. If Ahlas thought a teacher did not buy in to the program, she made life difficult, the teacher said.

O'Donnell, the union representative, agreed.

"There was an underlying fear of retribution, an underlying tension of 'Don't rock the boat or you are going to get in trouble,'" she said.

Citing privacy laws, the district would not say publicly why teachers were leaving. "It was just, 'You are not a good fit,'" O'Donnell said. "But they would go to another district and blossom."

But Dr. Ed Bridges, Ahlas's mentor from her days earning a master's degree in education at the Stanford University School of Education, said Ahlas should be lauded for making hard choices about her staff.

"When you have teachers who are not performing well and you work with them and you give them every opportunity to improve, whether they have tenure or not, if you have the child's best welfare in mind, then you have to have the courage to tackle that problem and she did," he said."

From O'Donnell's perspective, much of the conflict has died down and she credits Ahlas for building the Roseland kindergarten-through-college brand that has resonated with families.

"They have a very strong identity," O'Donnell said. "They have a very strong commitment to that community, which I think is a positive thing."

"It's 'We are Roseland and there is nobody else,'" she said. "I think she is responsible for that."

Ahlas's crowning achievement has been Roseland University Prep.

Opened in 2004 in an empty Quonset-hut warehouse on Sebastopol Road, RUP has no playing fields, no gymnasium and no traditional library. More than 90 percent of the students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch and 35 percent are considered English learners.

And still, the program is lauded for seeing through to graduation predominantly Latino boys and girls who traditionally had far lower graduation rates than their peers.

The program has proved so popular it generates an annual waiting list. Looking to provide a spot for all of Roseland's middle and high school students, Ahlas changed the dynamic of the traditional charter school setup and opened Roseland Collegiate Prep in the former Ursuline campus, miles from the district's traditional boundaries. In its opening year, the campus served seventh-graders, but eventually will offer classes through high school.

Half of the school's inaugural class came from outside Roseland's traditional district boundaries.

RUP, which requires students to complete college preparatory curriculum in order to earn a diploma, soared to a state academic score of 748 out of 1,000 and a 9 out of possible 10 score when compared to other schools across California with similar demographics.

Nearby Elsie Allen High School, which pulls from the same neighborhoods as RUP and had been the traditional high school for elementary students coming out of Roseland, posted a 660 state academic score and a rank of 5 when compared with similar schools.

In May 2012, RUP was named the seventh-best high school in California and the 40th best in the nation, according to U.S. News and World Report.

"They see us in this little, purple warehouse, I think it resonates because it's against all odds," Ahlas said. "When you meet the students, the families, the teachers, you can feel it. We will not stop until we succeed."

When Ahlas and district officials became concerned that RUP students were struggling in college and dropping out at elevated rates, the focus shifted from to college to through college.

The district recently hired 2009 RUP grad Moriah Hernandez as an Alumni Success Coordinator to help students — many of whom are the first in their family to make it to college — navigate their first semesters there.

"(RUP) definitely instilled in me the value of community and having a community that supports you to help you get through it all," the Willamette University graduate said.

Hernandez said Roseland Accelerated Middle School and RUP put college at the fore of her academic expectations, and gave her time during the school day to apply for college and scholarships. She expects to find students in their first semesters of college struggling with academic adjustments, financial strains and emotional stress.

"I would hope to be a mentor to them, as one who is closer to their age group but also someone who has been through it," she said.

Ahlas also created an adult mentor program for RUP juniors. The volunteer is asked for a three-year commitment to help guide the high schooler through through the closing years of high school and the first steps in college — a time when many students feel overwhelmed by academics, economics and social pressures.

Ahlas became a mentor herself.

"I got the mentorship program going, but if I'm not a mentor, it's too removed; it's too conceptual," she said. "I really need that communication with kids. That is why I get up in the morning."

Ronaldo Vazquez, 17, will be the first in his family to go to college when he starts classes at Chico State University next month. He is a 2013 RUP grad and Ahlas is his mentor. Earlier this month, the pair met at a Roseland Starbucks to go over a dorm room shopping list and make plans for a campus visit.

"Mrs. Ahlas and the teachers at RUP are the only ones I can talk about this with," he said. "I have never met someone so nice, someone so compatible with me as an adult," he said of Ahlas. "I admire her so much. She is like my second mother."

Of Sonoma County's 40 superintendents, only four have served longer than Ahlas.

The 1975 graduate of San Jose State University earned her teaching certificate a year later. She worked for the Alameda County Office of Education, teaching hearing-impaired children, for five years before leaving education to own and operate a children's clothing store in San Jose for six years.

She returned to education in 1987 as a resource specialist in special education for the Berryessa Elementary School District in San Jose. She worked there when she enrolled in the Stanford University master's degree program to become an administrator.

She says her drive to pursue her own education and her focus on students earning their way to college today comes, in part, from her 98-year-old mother's story of dropping out of school after the sixth grade.

"I can't even bring it up; she just cries," Ahlas said. "'Oh Gail, I just wish I could go to a high school like yours.' It's huge for me. It feels very personal."

When she moved to Santa Rosa in 1994 to become principal at Sheppard Elementary, she was newly married and mother to two young sons from a previous marriage. Her husband, Harry Ahlas, is a business manager for a food import company.

"I worked 12 hours a day," she said. "It was my family and Sheppard Elementary."

"Sometimes I wonder a bit, about work-life balance," she said, tearing up when asked about her greatest challenges. It's difficult to "do a good job and not ignore other aspects."

"Luckily my sons are great and they are doing really great," she said.

Ahlas's elder son, Nathan Heinrich, 32, of Portland said he and his brother Mitchell, 29, spent plenty of time on Roseland's campuses as kids.

"We did get dragged along, but it was always fun," he said. "She made it fun."

Having watched his mom pour her energy into work, Heinrich, who works in the technology industry, now reflects on his own commitment to both job and family.

"There is no boundary between the two and they both need to flow together," he said. "There is much more integration, you can't just turn it off. It has to be something you really enjoy doing and it's OK to integrate it into your life."

Ahlas, who considers her communication skills one of her strengths, speaks little Spanish — the primary language of students in her district.

"I have the vocabulary of a 2- or 3-year-old," she said. "I would love to be able to, but it's not my gift, so you surround yourself with the strengths that you don't have."

Her office, a corner room in a portable building set down on the southern corner of the shared campus of Sheppard and Roseland Accelerated Middle School, looks out onto a playground and ballfield.

It is here that Ahlas expects to end her career.

"I can't imagine working anywhere else and having the opportunity to make this kind of difference," she said.

On a recent trip to Hawaii, she bumped into a Roseland alum who is now a teacher there.

"They are showing up everywhere. That was the whole goal. It's starting to percolate; it's happening," she said, pulling up on her phone a photo of the young man in a Hawaii classroom.

"The plan — it's working."

Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@press democrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.

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