First came the national award from Brooks Running Company for being “Inspiring Coach of the Year” in June 2015. Next came the spread in People magazine this May. But California State University, Northridge alumnus Manny Castellanos ’09 (Art), M.A. ’12 (Secondary Education) still has a hard time accepting the praise and publicity.
“I don’t like to talk about myself,” said the 29-year-old PUC Lakeview Charter High School art teacher and cross-country coach. “If I could be completely honest, I give the students and staff credit for the award.
“I don’t want to [feel like a celebrity],” he said. “I want the award to be a reflection of the kids and what they’re doing. I, by no means, am the only person doing this kind of work. So many people are doing the same thing and are not being recognized every day.”
The son of Mexican immigrants, Castellanos grew up in a San Fernando Valley neighborhood overwhelmed by gang violence. He also was bullied as a youth for being overweight. He learned that by taking control of his life and relying on running and education as facilitators, he could succeed and show others how to take control of their own destinies. He has motivated a school and its students with his actions and words, and he inspires colleagues and students at two schools — the one where he teaches in Sylmar, and his alma mater.
“Getting to know him, there is this genuineness, this uniqueness that he truly does care,” said Lakeview Charter Principal Adam Almeida. “Like any educator, there’s that moment when you realize you’re really helping the students, you feel good. Helping students definitely is a rush any educator feels. He wants to promote that. He had people who molded the way he feels. … He wants to be that role model to students here, which we’re proud of — and we want to promote him in his growth as well.”
Castellanos said he cares because he was once where his students are today.
Castellanos grew up on the border of Pacoima and San Fernando. The soundtrack of his childhood included sirens and helicopter rotors spinning overhead. Gang violence created a steady stream of emergency responders in his neighborhood. Going outside wasn’t a safe option.
Making his childhood more difficult was the shame other kids made him feel.
“I was a heavy kid, a really heavy kid,” he recalled. “I was bullied. There’s a lack of control for a situation when you’re being picked on.”
He wanted to lose weight and knew running was a key to making that happen. But his mother wasn’t comfortable with him running in their neighborhood. He found he could avoid problems by getting out early in the morning. He quickly fell in love with the sport.
“When I was running, I felt like I was in control,” he said. “Having that sense of control helped me with my issues. It was my release and became more of my therapy.”
Castellanos found his calling while still a youngster — he wanted to make an impact on kids in the classroom and by teaching them the empowering effects of running.
His father, Juan Manuel — a yard foreman for a building supply company — and his mother, Yolanda Castellanos — a hairdresser — taught him the importance of education at an early age. They wanted their three children to have the best opportunities, so Castellanos was bused to Granada Hills Charter High School. His teachers there suggested he attend CSUN.
“CSUN had the best teacher-credential program,” he said. “I wanted to go to a school where I thought I’d get the best education for educators, and a lot of my [high school] educators recommended CSUN because it would prepare me more efficiently than [other schools].”
Castellanos said if it weren’t for a mentor at CSUN, he wouldn’t have been placed at Lakeview Charter. He was first teaching at Van Nuys Middle School then made a change.
“I credit CSUN because it kept me close to my community, which kept me focused on helping schools within the community like Lakeview,” Castellanos said. “I was hesitant to first apply [to Lakeview Charter], but my mentor and then instruction supervisor/professor [at CSUN] Larry Oviatt really encouraged me to take the leap and move from middle school to high school.
He has been teaching art and coaching cross-country at the school since 2012.
Lakeview Charter is a college preparatory school made up of many kids who come from socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods, similar to Castellanos’ old neighborhood. He understands the kids’ challenges.
“As an educator, he’s motivated, very excited for his students and very driven to provide our students the best possible education he can give,” Almeida said. “[As a coach], he’s supportive and open to all students’ abilities to perform well. Everyone has their various abilities. As long as they work to the best of their ability, he’s supportive of them.”
Castellanos used running as a youth to test his will and realized that if he could succeed in the grueling sport, he could transfer the experience to education and his everyday life. He has tried to share what he learned with his student-athletes.
“Running is a very personal thing to me,” he said. “One of the things I’m adamant about is I want them to fall in love with it. I want them to discover the value of pushing yourself and saying, ‘Yes, I want to better myself.’”
The kids get it. As proof, Castellanos points to the number of his students who have gone to college.
He never expected a reward for his work, but his student-athletes felt he deserved one. In May 2015, a couple of his runners asked to speak to him. Castellanos assumed they wanted to discuss a summer running schedule, he said. Instead, they showed him a video they made with testimonials from other students — moving the coach to tears.
His students had sent the video to Brooks Running Company for its Inspiring Coach of the Year national competition. The company selected Castellanos as one of 14 finalists and flew him to Seattle for the June 2015 awards banquet.
All of the finalist coaches had inspiring stories, but Castellanos’ proved to be the one that resonated most with the voters.
“I was left sort of speechless,” he said. “To win the award was amazing. To bring that recognition to our school and our students [was special]. To get up there and say, my kids inspire me every day and that this award is for them, [was special].”
Almeida was not surprised Castellanos won the award. He also knew the coach was not motivated by accolades, nor did he want attention for his work. Almeida said Castellanos gives because he sees himself in his students, and he knows they can accomplish their goals, like he did.
Castellanos shares something else with the kids at Lakeview Charter — he’s also a student. He has returned to CSUN to get a second master’s degree in education administration. He said he would like to become a principal.
“I tell my kids, you always have to challenge yourself one way or another,” Castellanos said. “Right now, this master’s is the challenge for me. Looking at the bigger picture and putting myself through school is a challenge. I love it. I love feeling that I’m developing myself for something positive.”
Last month, Castellanos’ story appeared in People magazine. He said it made his parents very proud. They got extra copies and took them to work. He’s also made a lot of others proud — his students, his school, his community and CSUN.
“I’m glad I’m honoring CSUN,” he said. “I feel in debt to CSUN. I didn’t go there because it’s convenient. I got here because I’m proud to be a Matador. It’s a pathway to success.”