David Casteal addresses his sixth-grade class as “learners,” as in: “Learners, here’s what going to happen.”
On this October morning, Casteal’s learners at Cooper Elementary School are visited by Mads Tranberg, Rogers High School’s Danish foreign exchange student who recently made the football team’s first field goal in three years.
Today, Tranberg will make the morning announcements over the loudspeaker in Danish. He will talk to Casteal’s class about Denmark and answer students’ questions.
They will line up for his autograph in their journals. They will go outside and take a class picture with the kicker. They will try to catch Tranberg’s kickoffs. They will break off into teams for a quick soccer match with Casteal and Tranberg on opposing teams. They will come back inside where each student who has earned it (all but two on this day) will grab a bag of ramen noodles and pour hot water in it for a quick “Ramen Wednesday” snack. Those who can’t participate still are allowed to eat from a basket of fruit.
They will end the morning by answering Tranberg’s questions about their lives.
When the fun is over and they break for lunch, Casteal offers a warning:
“When we come back, we’re doubling up. We’ve got all the math to cover. You’ve got to be 212 strong to be in here.”
That’s Casteal’s classroom number at Cooper in northeast Spokane. Many students here will go to Rogers High School, where Casteal is an assistant football coach. He is the coach who has worked most closely with Tranberg.
Casteal believes that whatever disadvantages kids bring to school from growing up poor or without a dad, “when they come to school they can be even.”
He makes his sixth-graders do pushups or other exercises to start the day, drawing on research finding that physical activity stimulates the brain. He arranges the desks in his classroom in a large square to create an open space “so we meet in the middle and discuss important things.”
From the ceiling hang dozens of hats used for birthdays and theater.
Each year, his class writes and performs plays explaining the school dress code, honoring veterans and celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day. His class also writes and produces a video at the end of the year. He learned to play African drums after purchasing some in Ghana when he was on a teaching fellowship in 1998. He started an African drum group, KuUmba, for Cooper students that tours the city and sometimes beyond. When a couple of talented guitarists were in his class a few years ago and wanted to start a rock group, he agreed to be their drummer. The group’s appearances included a Rogers High School pep rally.
“He takes kids and he finds out what their passions are and he builds on them,” said Cooper Principal Rona Williams. “He gets some of the highest test scores in the city.”
Casteal came to Spokane in the early 1990s to study education at Whitworth College.
His dad was in the Air Force and he grew up mostly in Alabama and Florida, but he spent a few of his grade school years at Fairchild Air Force Base.
Casteal was a running back at the University of Alabama and led the team in rushing touchdowns in 1988. Unlike most of his teammates, he graduated.
He had been obsessed with football in high school. He says it drove every decision he made. But by the time he left the University of Alabama, he was disenchanted with the culture of college football, the disregard for learning and academics.
He enrolled at Whitworth to earn an education degree. The heaviest coat he had when he arrived in Spokane was his letterman jacket.
“I just came on a whim. I wanted to get out of the South and get away from football and being known as a football player,” he said.
In his first two years back in Spokane, Casteal was pulled over 14 times by police and deputies. Casteal believed he was being profiled and filed a complaint with a city’s police oversight board.
“I will not pay fines for being a black man,” he told the board, which voted 7-1 to forward his complaint to a City Council committee that soon rejected it, according to an article in The Spokesman-Review.
After he raised questions about his treatment, however, the fines that totaled in the thousands of dollars were reduced to just a couple hundred, he said. He has rarely been pulled over in the 20 years since.
After graduating from Whitworth, Casteal was offered a job in Tampa, but he got another offer to teach at Cooper. He was tired of moving and stayed in Spokane.
Though the city has a small population of African Americans, he believes the community makes an effort to be welcoming.
“Spokane tries really hard,” he said.
He is active in local theater. He wrote the score for a play about an African American member of the Lewis and Clark expedition and played the lead role in an off-Broadway production of the show, “York.”
He’s been on the Rogers staff longer than any other coach.
On the Rogers practice field, Casteal is reserved. On the sideline at games, he’s loud and passionate. He often is the only person inside Joe Albi Stadium wearing a tie.
As the special teams coach, Casteal worked closely with Tranberg to apply his soccer skills to kicking a football. He plans to visit him in Denmark next summer.
The 2013 Rogers team was a lot more fun to coach than many recent teams, he said.
“I thought they really bought in. For the first time in a long time, they believed,” Casteal said. “They really cared about each other.”