Interview and photos by Jan Osborn.
Since February 26, United to Learn (U2L), a Dallas-based nonprofit that partners with Dallas ISD elementary schools to accelerate student achievement and grow purposeful leaders, has been hosting its annual Community Campus Day events. The fifth and final Community Campus Day will be held this Saturday, April 23.
During these Saturday events, United to Learn has mobilized community volunteers from companies, schools, and other organizations to improve campus cultures across 45 elementary schools.
One of the participating schools was Hotchkiss Elementary School. Dallas Doing Good interviewed its Principal, Principal Rita Castillo-Vela to learn more about her journey in education and the impact of United to Learn’s Community Campus Day.
Would you share your story of why you decided to get into education? And, what inspires you to continue your journey?
From a very early age, I was engaged in teaching. My Mom was a teacher assistant and I remember going with her to school and pretending to grade papers. It felt natural to be in a school setting for me. As I grew up, I resisted joining the education field and when I went to college, I became a “collector of credits”, studying, art, history and psychology. When I graduated, I was unsure what to do next. I ran into my old principal and he told me he had a teacher assistant job opening at Lida Hooe Elementary. I was so overjoyed that he put me on that path. I then became a teacher at Lida Hooe, where I taught math and science for ten years and really grew under mentors and principals that wanted to see me do well.
What was your catalyst for becoming a Principal? Is there a specific story or event that propelled you to want to become a Principal?
The same principals and mentors that supported me in my teaching profession, really encouraged me to pursue a Masters Degree, which put me on a trajectory to become a principal.
I recall a specific moment that inspired me to pursue school leadership. I remember as a kindergartener, I asked Dr. Cruz how she was a doctor without a white coat. She sat down with me to tell me that not all doctors are medical doctors and that you could study to be a doctor in lots of fields. In hindsight, this moment solidified for me as a 6-year-old Latina growing up in Oak Cliff that there were so many other opportunities. Opportunities I didn’t know about because these were not conversations that we were having around the dinner table. I want to provide the model for students and colleagues about the opportunities, careers and jobs that are available to them outside the jobs that we see day to day.
I needed to go into school leadership to be that model.
Tell us about United to Learn’s Community Campus Day project and how this project and this day impact your learning community?
I am really excited about our United to Learn project this year! It was a complete surprise to our faculty. The project stemmed from teachers’ requests. The teachers asked if they could create their own “Zen Den” to serve as an alternative place to lesson plan and collaborate—a room that could be a flexible space with nicer furniture to gather, meet with students or recharge. Last year we allocated a small office, but we had to re-purpose that space earlier this year. So, with United to Learn’s help we were able to renovate a different space into a multifaceted room. It will serve as the new ‘Zen Den’ and United to Learn helped us not just furnish it, but also stock it with needed materials and flexible spaces. A space like this really impacts the level of stress and helps reward our teachers for the last two years.
Why do you feel like organizations like United to Learn are important for our local schools?
I think it is important for schools to have thought partners that help schools think through what is truly possible. It is easy to go down rabbit holes and have tunnel vision when trying to address our many needs. However, U2L allows us to be creative and ask and seek things that we may not have even thought possible.
United to Learn is a true thought partner. The organization is full of innovative and creative minds that say “why not?” And they let us run with ideas. And its all for our kids! There is not a person in the building that doesn’t want to show up for our kids. In and outside of education.
What is your vision for Hotchkiss Elementary School five years from today?
Hotchkiss will soon be a Prek-8th grade Two Way Dual Language School. We want our students regardless of social economic status to have equitable access to educational opportunities. We are a truly diverse community and I want to continue to retain and recruit students with specialized programming.
Providing a two-way dual language and Honors program builds academic rigor and empathy between our non-Spanish speaking families and Spanish-speaking families. This type of programming creates student and parent collaboration that is authentic.
As we continue to create college-ready students we aim to be the bridge the gaps created by Covid and society. Our students will have the opportunity to transition with up to six high school credits, leaving middle school ready to thrive in high school and matriculate to college or careers.
We are in the implementation phases now and we are excited to see all our students succeed.
For more information about United to Learn, go to unitedtolearn.org.