As a young child, Donna Independent School District Superintendent Fernando Castillo remembers how tough it was for him to learn to read and write English because he knew only Spanish.

He was bothered even more after he learned that he was being placed in what was called “zero grade” while his friends went on to kindergarten. Eventually, things started to turn around for Castillo, thanks to his first grade teacher Eloida (Nino) Rocha. She worked with him diligently, incorporating songs and rhythm for the alphabet and vowels. Her method of teaching and his determination to learn helped Castillo with the fundamentals of reading and writing.

Today, the superintendent is proof that children can overcome obstacles if they apply themselves and if they are given the tools needed to be successful. That is why Castillo advocates for literacy programs at Donna ISD. His work implementing these initiatives earned him honors recently at the 31st Annual Abydos Literacy Learning Teachers’ and Trainers’ Conference in San Antonio. Castillo was presented with the 2017 Superintendent’s Award in recognition of excellence in literacy and his inspiring commitment to success for the students of Donna ISD.

img_1898“It’s certainly an honor and privilege to have been recognized with the Superintendent’s Award at the Abydos Literacy Learning Teachers’ and Trainer’s Conference,” Castillo said. “As leader of the district, this solidifies that what we’re doing for early child literacy (PreK-2) is on target for creating a strong foundation in helping students prepare for college. After all, college readiness doesn’t begin in high school but in fact it begins in early childhood education.”

Dr. Joyce Armstrong Carroll co-directs the Abydos Learning Project in Texas. “Mr. Castillo represents the true meaning of vision with action,” Carroll said. “He advocates not only for his students’ current academic success but for their future as well. He is truly invested in getting them college ready.”

DISD Department of English Language Arts Director Maritza Park believes there is no one more deserving of this distinction than Castillo. She nominated him and was thrilled to learn he was selected from a list of 15 Texas superintendents.

“Since 2002, the year Mr. Castillo first brought The New Jersey Writing Project in Texas (now known as Abydos Learning International) to Donna ISD, he has been a crusader for change,” Park said. “That year, Donna High School did not meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) federal standards. As campus principal at the time, Castillo was concerned and sought out what was working in neighboring districts and found Abydos Literacy Learning.”

pic-3In 2003, DHS held its first Abydos Institute for district educators. The success of the institute led Donna ISD to start its first cohort of Abydos trainers and provide reading and writing through Abydos district-wide. Park said these efforts resulted in DHS meeting state and federal AYP standards within a year and eventually becoming a Recognized campus.

Park said these initiatives are positively impacting students. “Even though there was a decrease in writing scores in fourth and seventh grades statewide last year, our district showed an increase overall,” Park said. “It’s inspiring to see that the implementation of Abydos strategies not only impacts authentic student writing and thinking, but also translates to improvement on student performance in high-stakes tests.”

Castillo is also credited for implementing other literacy initiatives including Sing, Spell, Read and Write. The phonics program, was in place in three elementary schools but was incorporated in all 14 PreK-2 grade campuses under Castillo’s leadership.

With Castillo at the helm for only a few months, Park believes a lot more is yet to come for the district. “Mr. Castillo truly embodies the motto he has adopted for our district, Be the Change,” Park said. “Despite all the obstacles that our district faces, he has managed to positively impact instruction and student achievement.”