Chicago charter school principal Isaac Castelaz is capitalizing on his failures to create a roadmap for success, a process that’s setting an example of strong character for his students and staff.
In a recent editorial for Education Week, Castelaz detailed how his first year as principal of National Teachers Academy, a public charter school, ended with a 5Essentials survey that showed his leadership left a lot to be desired.
Despite poor academic data, declining attendance rates, and increasing student suspensions, the results of the survey came as a shock, Castelaz said, and it sparked his commitment to design a plan of action that’s since changed the dynamic at the school.
“Dark red. Every essential was in the lowest category. The words hit me like a blow to the stomach: ‘Not Organized for Improvement,’” Castelaz recalled from his first year survey results. “The survey data, once I unpacked it, not only put lyrics to the sad song, but as any really great melancholy tune ought to, it helped me find hope: a roadmap to improvement.”
Castelaz spent the two months before the next school year changing how he approached his leadership position, spending 80 hour weeks working on professional development and creating a vision for the school year.
The principal worked to improve relationships with teachers in the building by listening, eating lunch together, hiring new staff, and designing new systems.
“I visited with staff before and after school to hear how the day went, or if they had anything on their minds. We monitored processes and systems consistently: Everything from attendance to whether lunch started and ended on time,” Castelaz wrote. “By establishing an organized culture, my staff felt less distracted and more comfortable focusing on teaching. In turn, the climate at the school was transformed. Staff felt valued, enhancing commitment and the quality of instruction. And students learned.
“We had a better year. Every data point said so. And when the results were released, the 5Essentials said so too.”
Castelaz demonstrated humility and courage in facing the failures of his leadership, and in doing so changed the singularly important dynamic of school climate in forming character in students.
University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter explained that the moral culture of a school “is not merely the environment within which identity plays out.
“It is, even more, a reality that frames the categories of identity, structures the identity, and even indelibly stamps identity,” Hunter wrote in The Death of Character. “Without the authoritative presence of a moral culture, internalized into subjective consciousness, there can be no character or ‘character development.’”
A video on Vimeo provides more information about the 5Essentials survey and reporting tools that sparked Castelaz to take action.
The University of Chicago also hosts a Leadership Collaborative Series that helps school leaders “engage school staff in collective learning around leadership and targeted areas of the 5Essentials Framework, as well as combine knowledge and resources to create the conditions for school improvement.”