The Chronicles of Francisco: Sowing Seeds on a Journey to School Leadership
Looking at a map on your computer screen, it seems like a pretty straight shot from Washington, DC, to San Jose, California. Hop on I-80 West and a mere 42 hours and 2,842 miles later you’ll arrive at your destination.
For Francisco Castillo-Fierro, the journey from his hometown of DC to the Bay Area featured detours to places like Phoenix and Santiago, Chile, and a few pit stops at Notre Dame to earn two master’s degrees. According to the ACE Advocates database, he is one of only two of ACE’s 1,947 graduates to have completed five formation programs: Teaching Fellows, ACE in Chile (ChACE), English as a New Language Hernandez Fellows, the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program, and the Reform Leaders’ Summit.
Over the years, Francisco has served at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels. He helped found Cristo Rey San José Jesuit High School (CRSJ), directed the school’s blended learning initiatives, taught English and Spanish, led retreats, moderated clubs, worked in the ed tech space for a time, and now serves as the assistant principal at Most Holy Trinity Catholic School in East San Jose.
Francisco summed up his journey by saying, “As a first-generation son of immigrants, I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished and grateful for the road that’s gotten me here. To quote Father Greg Boyle, the journey has been about kinship - not serving the other, but being one with the other.”
His first trip out west was as an undergraduate at Pomona College in Claremont, California. An international relations major with an interest in education, Francisco was researching Teach for America when a high school friend who went to Notre Dame mentioned ACE Teaching Fellows.
“He knew I was thinking about education and encouraged me to check out ACE since their mission was focused on serving Catholic schools,” said Francisco, who attended Catholic schools from kindergarten through high school. “I was part of a vibrant Christian community at Pomona and was interested in getting back into a Catholic school environment.”
Francisco joined ACE’s 15th cohort of Teaching Fellows, and he was placed in Phoenix, with five ACErs who formed lifelong friendships over their two years of teaching, learning, serving, and living together in an intentional community. While there, he was inspired by his teaching instructor, Dr. Rachel Moreno, who was one of Francisco's first professors of color. She started planting the seeds of his thinking about potential leadership and how beautiful it can be to create fellowship in education.
At the end of his time as an ACE teacher, Francisco hoped to get a better sense for what education looked like on an international level, so he applied to the ChACE program. The 18-month immersion provided Francisco and the other ChACErs an opportunity to teach English as a foreign language at Saint George’s College in Santiago and participate in ACE’s English as a New Language Hernandez Fellows program.
“ChACE was a great opportunity for me to grow as a leader and an educator, while teaching in an international setting,’ Francisco said. “That experience also juxtaposed underserved communities and communities of means. I knew education was my calling to stand with others, and experiencing the stark differences made a definite impact on me.”
Francisco returned to the States and accepted a middle school English position at Sacred Heart Nativity School in San Jose, which placed a strong emphasis on intentional time with students and holistic learning. After seeing Francisco work with his students and his knack for educational technology, the president of Sacred Heart came to him with a proposal at the end of the 2012-13 school year.
“He pulled me aside and told me he was starting a Cristo Rey High School here in San Jose, and he wanted me to come on board as the director of blended learning,” said Francisco.
Realizing that he was ready for a new challenge, Francisco jumped on board and threw himself into building the school from the ground up.
“At first it was just me, the president, and the principal in one office doing everything,” said Francisco. “We were writing up the vision and mission statements, creating the academic model, interviewing all of the incoming students, and going out into the community to talk with families about this high-quality Catholic education we wanted to provide for their children. It meant the world to me to see my own face in our prospective students.”
Although he initially signed up for a two-year commitment to CRSJ, Francisco ended up staying for six. During that time he served as the director of blended learning and the director of information technology, taught Spanish and English classes, created a plan for the school’s educational technology needs, served as an instructional coach for teachers, and moderated a club where students cooked food for people experiencing homelessness, among other duties.
With this diverse mix of experiences and opportunities, Francisco felt a deepening call to educational leadership, although he was still uncertain of his next step.
“I was in a place where I had one foot in the school leadership space and the other in the teaching world,” Francisco said. “I wanted to learn more about leadership and knew about the Remick Leadership Program, but it felt like a bit of a pipe dream in that moment of my life.”
That’s when Greg O’Donnell, an ACE and ChACE classmate of Francisco’s who now serves as ACE’s associate director of leadership programs, reached out with some encouraging news.
“Greg told me about a generous benefactor named John Sobrato who was providing scholarships to prospective Remick Leaders in the Bay Area,” Francisco said. “I knew I would be remiss if I didn’t take advantage of the opportunity. Having a chance to learn more about leadership meant a great deal to me, especially as a person of color. Representation matters; it mattered to me when I had Dr. Moreno as my professor, and it matters to the students and families that we face.”
While back on Notre Dame’s campus, Francisco continued to sow the seed of educational leadership that had been planted so many years ago. During his time in the 16th cohort of the Remick Leadership Program, a friendship developed that led to an opportunity to partner with one of his classmates.
“Douglas Hosking had approached me about the possibility of joining him at Most Holy Trinity in East San Jose,” Francisco noted.
After considering a number of different options and spending time working on social-emotional learning at Sown To Grow, an educational technology company, Francisco decided to take Douglas up on his offer and join the team at MHT as the assistant principal this year—Douglas’ first as the principal. Starting a new job always has its share of challenges, but throw in a global pandemic, forest fires that have ravaged large swaths of the West Coast, and a new arrival for the Hosking family that made Francisco the emergency principal for two weeks, he had plenty of work to do at his new post.
Despite all of this, Francisco is grateful to have the opportunity to lead the school with a fellow Remick grad, which has helped them to transmit the school’s culture and values to their students and families.
“We’re in lock step on so many things, which was a huge help right from the start,” Francisco said. “To be a school leader alongside someone I know so well has been invaluable.”
He is also amazed at the many signs of hope that abound within the MHT community and encouraged by how the school year has started. The team has implemented a flexible schedule for all students, and the faculty took the first two weeks of school to focus on social-emotional learning and community building.
“Our collective traumas are real, both for our students and staff. Addressing our social-emotional wellness is critical at any time, and even more so now in a pandemic,” Francisco said.
The team has also implemented habit building classes for students to improve their mental and physical organization, partnered with families to get constructive feedback, and has added a literacy coach to their growing team.
“We believe we are better together at MHT, and we stand with our East side community in moving forward,” Francisco said.
Whether the next step of his journey includes another stop on the West Coast, the long trek back to DC, or somewhere in between, Francisco is certain that there will be plenty more seeds to sow along the way.
Interested in school leadership? Applications for the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program are now open!