Transforming a School Should be an Inclusive, Community-Led Effort
SCHOOLS | November 19, 2020
Transforming a School Should be an Inclusive, Community-Led Effort

By Marcelo Costilla Jr., Principal of Reilly Elementary 

When I became principal of Reilly Elementary in Avondale at the beginning of this year, I had each of my staff members write down their expectations for me on a Post-it note. I’ve kept them the entire year to remind myself why I became a school leader and to stay focused on the commitments that I have made to my school community. 

These Post-it notes reflect where our school is now and where we want it to be in the future. Returning to Reilly—the school where I started my teaching career—meant facing the reality that some members of our community were not satisfied with the direction the school was headed. Parent involvement and teacher trust had declined for several straight years. 

And just as I began to develop new systems and structures to work through some of these problems, we were hit with another one: a pandemic. I had only been principal for several weeks when I was forced to completely rethink what the rest of the school year would look like for my students when the entire district transitioned to remote learning in the spring. With the help of my incredibly supportive team, we were able to finish the school year strong. 

Facing what will likely be the biggest challenge of my career right at the beginning of my first principalship has been challenging, but I am grateful that it coincided with something else I was involved in this year: the district’s Great Expectations Mentoring (GEM) Program. 

As a CPS graduate, an immigrant, a former bilingual educator, and now a school leader, I am reminded on a daily basis that the district’s current values—equity, community partnership, and student voice—were not always priorities. There were countless times as a student when I felt that I did not receive the respect or support that I deserved. 

Those memories stick with you—especially when you decide to lead a classroom of your own. The GEM program allowed me to collaborate directly with other leaders of color around the systemic changes that we wanted to see. Simply talking with other CPS graduates who decided they wanted to give back to the district like I did was like healing a wound. 

When you are a part of something rooted in a sense of being embraced by others, you start to see your colleagues more as brothers and sisters. That shift in perspective will be applied to my work at Reilly. 

The rigid, hierarchical way of running a school needs to be a thing of the past. Everyone in my school community has an equal stake in our students’ educational outcomes, and we will work together to reduce inequities and support academic growth. Our parents will teach us just as much as we teach them. 

With my staff, it’s important that I create a symbiotic culture of togetherness and liberatory thinking. Our backgrounds and experiences are far too rich to let our roles be reduced to bulleted lists of responsibilities. For example, my bridge into teaching was working with children in foster care at a non-profit organization for nearly a decade, so one of my strengths is improving school programs and policies to be more trauma-informed.

I am committed to moving beyond biases to identify how each of my educators can use their unique talents and strengths to move our school forward in ways that are new and unexpected yet fulfilling. 

Our school’s Student Voice Committee is another tool that will help our stakeholder groups see each other as equals. My top priority is to show my students that there is inherent power in the universal right of being who we are. And teaching and learning remotely isn’t going to compromise this. We’re already discussing schoolwide projects to increase student engagement that we can start working on right now. 

I hope that every step forward we take together connects back to what I see as our overarching mission at Reilly: working out of good intentions to impact the lives of children through education. As I approach the end of my first year as principal, I’m still looking over those Post-it notes to make sure that every interaction between myself and another member of our school family connects to these values. 

Our school mascot is a roadrunner, but I’ve been encouraging our parents to think of it more as a phoenix rising from the ashes. Reilly Elementary is that phoenix, and the hard work of our parents, educators, staff and students is what will propel us higher and higher. 

Marcelo Costilla Jr. has devoted several decades to supporting students at Reilly Elementary—first as an educator and now as principal. He is a proud graduate of Pickard Elementary and Curie High School.