Elk Grove instructor named Teacher of the Year
Freshman year of high school, Ricky Castro was failing all his classes, running with Chicago street gangs, and searching for his identity or, as he says, looking for "a sense of power and value."
His parents decided to move their family to the suburbs, where things started to change for the better. It wasn't only a change of setting, but he began to have a change of heart.
Maybe it was the math teacher at York High School who saw something in him and decided to let him enroll in her honors class.
Or the church youth group member who helped him feel a sense of belonging in the community and got him to see things in a positive light.
Those mentors inspired him to become an educator himself, someone with a passion for helping at-risk students -- many of whom experience the same struggles he had not so long ago.
It's Castro's dedication to his students and their families within and outside the confines of his Elk Grove High School classroom -- particularly his coordination of a mentorship program and parent outreach group -- that got him named 2017 Illinois Teacher of the Year by the Illinois State Board of Education.
"I truly believe that our jobs as educators should be to prepare students socially and academically to thrive in a democratic society," said Castro, a Spanish language instructor.
"We must help our students become successful, not only through test-taking, but also through character. That, in turn, will help us become a stronger country."
Believing that the academic and social needs of students go hand in hand, Castro came up with the idea for the after-school mentoring program soon after his hiring at Elk Grove three years ago.
Called Estudiantes Unidos, the program is staffed by 40 high school student mentors who are paired with Grove Junior High School students in need of positive influences, or, as Castro says, before they become "hardened."
The mentors and mentees meet twice a month to discuss principles of character and leadership, do team-building activities and work on community service projects. As part of a related outreach effort, Castro and his student mentors last summer piloted a camp program at Oasis Mobile Home Park, where many of the high school and junior high school students live.
"We want to open up their world view," Castro said. "They live in a bubble. What happens is, in poverty, you see the world in a local setting. If we pop the bubble, we can transform the lives of many kids."
Some of the students who are now high school mentors -- for which they must apply and be evaluated based on their grades and behavior -- were once mentored themselves in junior high school. Those students have developed a sense of belonging, Castro says -- something that has the power to affect academic performance.
Castro also helps lead Elk Grove High School's Latino parent outreach organization, Familias Unidas, which helps parents become part of the school setting. It was Castro's idea to start Saturday outreach events at Oasis, where Spanish-speaking teachers host parent-teacher conferences in the mobile home park's office.
The organization's biggest event is an annual Cinco de Mayo celebration at the school to celebrate student achievements and awards.
Ruby Aleman, a school counselor who also helps run the group, said Castro connects with parents by describing complex information in an educational and fun way.
"You need somebody to capture that energy so parents will feel welcome and want to come back," Aleman said. "He makes that connection right off the bat."
Castro credits mentors he had growing up who helped set him on the right track, especially Jorge Lucero, a fellow youth group member at a Melrose Park church Castro began attending in high school.
Lucero had such an impact because "he looked like me, and had the same story as me, in many ways," Castro said.
Lucero, now an assistant art professor at the University of Illinois, said he could see the seeds of leadership growing in Castro years ago.
"It was a time of maturing for everybody in the group. We had a group of leaders who were always really good about delegating leadership positions to some of the younger people," Lucero said. "I think we were cocreating experiences alongside the leadership, and, in turn, became leaders ourselves."
Now, Castro is trying to inspire other educators -- both in schools and in communities -- by sharing how they can replicate his programs.
Castro recently spoke to a group of first generation college students at Lewis University and a conference of multilingual educators, and plans to give tutorials for new teachers in other districts.
Over winter break, he plans to spend Sundays at three church congregations on the South Side of Chicago to help them start youth groups of their own.
Elk Grove High School Principal Paul Kelly, who nominated Castro for the Teacher of the Year honor, says Castro has worked even harder since winning the award in October.
"What makes Ricky remarkable is his constant dedication to long-term solutions," Kelly said. "He's not a teacher who only thinks what a class day should be like. He thinks about what a whole society should look like."
Meet Ricky CastroAge: 35
Occupation: World Languages teacher at Elk Grove High School
Education: Bachelor of arts in English from DePaul University, master of arts in education from University of Illinois at Chicago
Activities: Sponsor of Estudiantes Unidos, a student mentorship program, and co-leader of Familias Unidas, a Latino parent outreach organization