Jen's family is moving to Europe in July. As she reflects on her move, she'd like to devote this post to Sue Castagna, the principal of her children's school.
At the end of the summer, my family is moving to Linz, Austria. The three things that I'll miss most about America are my parents, old fashioned American BBQ, and Mrs. Susan Castagna. The first two can join me on my journey. Sue Castagna, on the otherhand, will remain. She is the principal of my own children's school. I'd like to devote this post to her, as she embodies, in my opinion, all the qualities that make a principal into that of book legend.
Mrs. Castagna is the principal of St. Athanasius school in Evanston, Illinois. St. Athanasius, under Mrs. Castagna's leadership, was recently awarded a Blue Ribbon for High Performance by the US Department of Education. In order to even apply for the award, a school needs to meet this criteria:
The performance of all tested students in the school in the most recent year tested in both reading (English language arts) and mathematics must be in the top 15 percent of all schools in the state when schools are ranked based on the performance of all tested students.
St. Athanasius meets this high standard and so much more. The arts program is one of the best in the country. For the past 6 years in a row, students from the school have received awards for top artistic performance in a state poster campaign. The school boasts a top notch band, a choir, and a string performance group. Students highly achieve in a variety of school sporting events. The school also has after school activities including Spanish Club, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, newspaper, and student council. In summary, the school is one of the best in the country in all areas. I could go on and on about the achievements of the school, but I want to return to Mrs. Castagna, the leader of the ship and what sets her apart as an extraordinary leader.
Before my children even entered St. Athanasius, I heard rumors about Mrs. Castagna. For example, I heard that she was very strict. She didn't cower to over-demanding parents. She made kids toe the line.
When I got to see her in action, I found that all these rumors were true. Mrs. Castagna is tough. She cruises the hall and commands respect. Kids see her coming, and they stand a bit straighter. When Mrs. Castagna puts up her three fingers to garner attention, the kids fall silent and hush each other.
Mrs. Castagna is business. But then, she appears in the school talent show and leads the entire school in the hand jive. She shows up on Halloween and leads the little kid parade dressed in sun glasses as a Blues Brother. She walks into the kindergarten classroom and hugs the kids. She is life and love for all the students.
I've observed Mrs. Castagna for five years with a mix of admiration and wonder. How does she do it? These are my observations:
She sets expectations higher than anyone thinks realistic, but then she provides tools to make sure that all can reach the goals. She holds everyone: students, parents, and teachers accountable. We respect her. She is devoted to our families, and we in turn love her.
One morning, I received a call from Mrs. Castagna as one of my kids got into a bit of trouble. Mrs. Castagna didn't elaborate on the phone, but said she'd like to meet. My husband and I came in the next day and found Mrs. Castagna and the classroom teacher waiting for us. We talked through the situation and came up with a plan together. As a parent, I was worried and upset about my kid for doing something that warranted a visit to the principal. As an educator, I was clapping for Mrs. Castagna. Most principals would not have bothered to call me, much less set aside an hour to talk with me. But not Mrs. Castagna. She stops issues before they even become a problem at her school by working with parents immediately.
I also have observed Mrs. Castagna giving credit to everyone but herself. At every assembly and presentation, Mrs. Castagna is there. She is handing out flowers to her staff and thanking them for their hard work. She is highlighting one team member or another for all sorts of reasons. She stands hunched so that all can climb on her back, and then she carries us.
In terms of curriculum and instruction, Mrs. Castagna leads. As a parent, I can't say for sure what happens behind closed doors. However, on my way to pick up my kids from school, I've walked through the teacher's lounge several times and admired post-its filled with a variety of learning strategies, thinking that this is a fabulous use of staff team time. I've watched Mrs. Castagna collect information on overall student performance and tweak the curriculum as needed to ensure that kids achieve in all aspects. I've watched as Mrs. Castagna surveys parents yearly to gather input on what areas need improvement from our perspective, and then openly share all the results with the entire school body.
Tonight, I watched my child perform in the school fine arts night. At the conclusion of the night, Mrs. Castagna took the stage and as always thanked the teachers, the students, and the parents for their hard work and dedication. She took the opportunity to remind us of all that makes St. Athanasius great, but she left out one important detail- herself!
So this is for Mrs. Castagna: You are what makes St. Athanasius great. Thank you. Our home is always open for you if you want to visit Europe. And please bring BBQ sauce.