ALAMEDA -- Sean McPhetridge was working as a teacher inside San Quentin State Prison when a death row inmate offered the advice that helped convince him he should make education his career.
"Go and get them before they wind up in here," Mauricio Silva, nicknamed "The Monster," told McPhetridge, a reminder that reaching young people in the classroom can eliminate the need to reach them in a prison cell.
"What he said challenged me," said McPhetridge, the newly hired interim superintendent of the Alameda Unified School District. "It told me that I could have a role as an educator outside of that place and affect lots more people."
McPhetridge began his duties as the district's top Administrator Aug. 13, the morning after trustees approved his contract, which runs through June 2015. The appointment could be considered a homecoming for McPhetridge, who has worked on-and-off for the district for the past 14 years.
Along with serving as assistant superintendent between 2010 and 2013, McPhetridge was principal of the Alameda Science and Technology Institute between 2005 and 2008.
His background also includes serving as the district's director of secondary and career technical education and as a vice principal at Alameda High School.
"I keep coming back to this district because I like this community, I really do," McPhetridge said. "This community embraces diversity, and I like it's resilience. The people care about their schools."
The appointment of McPhetridge follows the departure of former Superintendent Kirsten Vital, now the top administrator at the Capistrano Unified School District in Orange County.
McPhetridge began his first Monday on the job by visiting Encinal High School, where he addressed a gathering of the district's newest teachers.
"I told them that it's not me that matters," he said. "I told them it's about the district's vision and mission and our guiding principles."
According to policies adopted by trustees, the district's vision is to offer students "a rigorous academic program in an inclusive, safe and secure environment" and the mission is to "effectively use our limited resources to ensure that every student succeeds."
The guiding principles include a call for each district employee to be treated professionally and with respect -- something that seems to come naturally to McPhetridge. As he walked across the Encinal campus, McPhetridge greeted each person he met, many by their first name.
"I am walking-around kind of guy," he said. "It can make you a magnet."
Emily Pabarcus, a social studies teacher, spotted him in the hallway.
"I was so happy to hear that you were coming back," she said as she hugged him. "I really, really am."
While his morning included a visit to Encinal, the rest of McPhetridge's day was taken up with getting ready for the upcoming school year, including a lunch meeting with other administrators to review enrollment and other issues.
McPhetridge is stepping into his current position just as campaigning is getting underway for the November election, including two seats on the Alameda school board. Voters also will determine the fate of a $180 million bond measure to pay for upgrades at Island schools.
McPhetridge said he will work with any candidate elected. His job is to provide leadership and a sense of continuity, he said, as the board searches for a permanent superintendent.
As for the bond measure? "The taxpayers will have to decide," McPhetridge said. "But I would be excited to take this district into the 21st century."
Before taking on his current role, McPhetridge served as interim director of student programs and services at the Alameda County Office of Education for two months.
McPhetridge grew up in Upland, a city in San Bernardino County, and graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a doctorate in education from Harvard University.
McPhetridge moved to the Bay Area 20 years ago after his wife, Kristin Dougall, got a job at an interactive television startup based in Alameda. She now works as a medical researcher at Stanford University. The couple live in San Francisco's Castro district.
McPhetridge taught English as a Second Language and administered an associates of arts degree program for inmates at San Quentin for five years until he became a vice principal at Alameda High School in August 2000.
The school's principal was then Margie Sherratt, the current school board president. Those kind of personal connections make the district special, McPhetridge said.
"It has always felt like family to me," he said. "I may live in San Francisco, but I have spent so much time in Alameda that it's also home to me."
Reach Peter Hegarty at 510-748-1654 or follow him on Twitter.com/Peter_Hegarty.