New principal steps up
09/26/2012 10:00 PM
Isaac Castelaz has seen a lot of schools.
Though he was born in Chicago, he moved around a lot when he was growing up — to different corners of the nation and the world. In fact, in the 12 years from kindergarten through high school, he went to 10 different schools.
So by the time he got to high school, he began to get an idea of what worked — and what didn’t.
“I think the experiences in high school were the things I carried with me most when I did become a teacher myself,” he said, “because the kind of instruction I gravitated towards the most was the kind where I was challenged to either form a belief and then back it up with reasons or form other beliefs and test the reasons out.”
He kept those skills in mind as he quickly ascended the ranks of Chicago teachers. This fall, in the wake of the Chicago Teachers Union strike, Castelaz is taking the helm of a school for the first time: He’s the new principal at the National Teachers Academy on the far end of the South Loop.
Castelaz, 36, is taking over the school as it reenters a period of flux. NTA has been sitting half-empty since the population it was built to serve, the residents of former Harold Ickes Homes, dispersed. As a neighborhood school with relatively tight boundaries (roughly from 18th Street south to the Stevenson Expressway, and from Clark Street to Lake Michigan), it hasn’t gotten many students.
Though its empty space has been discussed as a possible relief for overcrowding at South Loop Elementary for years, Chicago Public Schools officials announced a solution for the under-populated school in August: giving NTA a new regional gifted center in 2013 to replace the one being phased out at South Loop.
Castelaz hit the ground running and is hoping to use the gifted center’s resources to help improve the rest of the school. They will get an extra resource teacher for the whole school for every two gifted grade levels they offer, and he’s planning to bring in a Mandarin Chinese instructor.
“We’ve talked to lots of people in the community to make sure that if a gifted center comes to National Teachers Academy, it is designed and built in such a way that it will benefit all students here at the school,” he said. “The Mandarin program is an opportunity for the students in the gifted program to benefit from the gifted instructor, but we’d find a way other students could get exposed as well.”
NTA already ranks as one of the higher-scoring schools on the city’s South Side, and it has grown by leaps and bounds. In 2011, 73 percent of students met standards on state tests, up from 60 percent in 2009. On top of that, 13 percent of students exceeded ISAT standards, up from 5.9 percent in 2009.
Aside from the extra teacher, Castelaz said he wasn’t sure what benefit the gifted center would bring the rest of the students, but he added that they’re not standing pat.
“NTA will continue to be, and function as, a neighborhood school,” he said. “We’ve always had high expectations for students, and we will continue to have high expectations for our students, despite our status as a neighborhood school or a regional gifted center.
“Regardless of who’s here, we’ll continue to push and support kids. I don’t know that the number of students would change the way that we do things. We’re always looking to get better — we always have.”