Feb 022018

The third finalist for the CEO position at New Orleans College Prep to meet with the charter network’s governing board said Thursday he would combine a strong curriculum, an emphasis on daily attendance and development of extracurricular activities to raise the schools’ standing in the community.

Joel Castro, a former associate superintendent of the Lubbock Independent School District until last year, is now living New Orleans and finishing a doctorate in education from the University of Texas. He was the last of three finalists to make a presentation to the College Prep board, following Adam Meinig last week and Denise Charbonnet on Wednesday.

Throughout his presentation, Castro made multiple references to his time touring the College Prep campuses (Sylvanie Williams and Crocker elementary schools, Cohen high school and the new Hoffman early-childhood center), “highlighting the positive” he saw at each location and describing the way in which those strengths would dovetail with his plan.

He praised the students he met at Cohen for their pride and their engagement, and said their sense of humor and hard questions to him indicated that they are happy in their environment. He also praised the faculty for their work ethic, and said his goal would be to support them with more training on the art and science of teaching, rather than simply forcing them to work harder.

“I saw people working really, really hard,” Castro said. “If our efforts are going to be to make people work harder but they’re already working the hardest we can, we’re going to spin our wheels.”

At Crocker, Castro praised the tradition of fine arts and promised to make building on that a priority. Even at Sylvanie Williams — where an F performance score from the state could lead to the charter being revoked after this year — Castro said he was surprised by the grit and determination to succeed he saw from the principal, teachers and students.

“I fully expected to see heads hanging low, but I saw teaching and learning going on in the classrooms,” Castro said. “It was an amazing experience.”

Castro also promised to build on the parental involvement he observed. He lives about three blocks from Cohen, he said, and answered an unexpected knock on the door around 9 p.m. to find a College Prep parent who had heard he was a finalist.

She had quite a few opinions to share, Castro said, laughing, but also noting that he would start his leadership of the school with a listening tour to solicit just that kind of unfiltered opinion.

“She told me what I had to do,” Castro said. “We’re going to need all that momentum.”

From a curriculum standpoint, Castro said a key goal will be establishing literacy at all levels — not just reading, but math as well. He also described “information literacy” to help students learn to find reliable sources on their own, and financial literacy for older students as a real-world life skill.

Castro made extracurricular activities another central part of his presentation, both arts and athletics. The arts are firmly established as source of higher-thinking skills, Castro said, and athletics are often a strong motivator. He noted that Crocker has a lacrosse program, but Cohen does not, so he would strive to ensure that activities introduced in middle school can be continued at the high school level.

“This is how we get kids to come to school. This is how we get kids to stay in school,” Castro said. “If that’s why they’re coming to school, and classes are just other stuff, well, that would pretty much simulate what happened with me in high school.”

Such activities can also help with attendance and enrollment, Castro said, though he emphasized that academics are the most important feature in families’ decision making. He also proposed a “summer bridge” program with activities in the arts, athletics and experiential learning, to both build the school community and help students arrive in the fall better prepared.

He gave board members a written “90-day entry plan” from March to May to help him further assess the needs of the schools. Ultimately, College Prep could have its schools earning a ‘B’ performance score in the 2018-2019 school year, Castro said, but only if the instruction level is striving toward an A.

Finally, Castro said that the public needs to be made better aware of the excitement that happens within the walls of the schools through a strategic communications plan. That, too, will help with enrollment in a competitive education system.

“If we don’t tell our story, who’s going to tell it?” Castro said. “What I saw was absolutely fabulous things going on. We need to be tweeting it out. We need this messaging to happen on daily basis.”

College Prep board members had more questions for Castro in the public meeting than they did for either of the other two candidates. They asked him for more detail on his view on finances and the summer program he proposed, his experience with the International Baccalaurate, and his own background (in municipal finance) before he became an educator.

Board member Barbara MacPhee also asked Castro for his opinion of the charter system in New Orleans, since his background includes both traditional schools and charters. Castro replied that research does not show much difference in performance overall between charters and traditional schools once selectivity is removed, but he personally enjoys working in a competitive environment, and agrees with the idea that families should be able to choose their children’s schools.

“I love competition,” Castro said. “I think that makes us better schools.”

Likewise, board member Grisela Jackson asked him about his own past experience founding a charter school in Texas. Castro said he was given the job with less than a year to hire the entire faculty and staff, but ultimately took a population similar to College Prep’s (90 percent free and reduced lunches, 99 percent minority) to a 100 percent passing rate on state exams.

Castro emphasized that the excitement of starting a new school is different from the type of leadership involved in maintaining a school’s performance, to “keep the trains running on time.”

“We had outstanding parents who stuck through us thick and thin. We had very deep parental involvement,” Castro said. “It was an amazing experience, one I would really enjoy replicating again.”

As with the previous two candidates, the College Prep board held a closed-door executive session for about 15 minutes following the conclusion of Castro’s presentation, and invited him in to join the discussion for another hour afterward. Unlike the other candidates, however, the board then spent yet another half-hour in closed session after Castro departed.

The board is planning another meeting Monday (Feb. 5) to continue discussing the finalists, said board chair Peter Harding, though no vote is currently scheduled.

CEO candidate Joel Castro answers questions from the New Orleans College Prep board on Thursday, Feb. 1. (screen capture from video by Robert Morris, UptownMessenger.com)

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