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Although serving only three years as superintendent of Dilley schools, Dr. Emilio Castro had more than his fair share of crises through which to lead the district.
The school superintendent submitted his resignation to the board of trustees last week and has begun a move to Houston area schools, where his wife is currently employed.
Hired in July 2020, Dr. Castro came to Dilley from the Dallas-based Texans Can Academies, for whose satellite district in San Antonio he had been working when long-serving Dilley ISD Supt. Clint McLain resigned his position.
Castro arrived at a school district that had gone into complete lockdown and then shutdown as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and was faced with converting traditional rural education into high-speed internet instruction via hotspots to laptops and tablets that were scarce among many of the district’s students.
“In retrospect, I believe we handled it well, but of course we could have done some things differently,” the superintendent said in a weekend interview. “I was pleased with the results, considering how quickly we had to convert to internet instruction. The priority was always the students, ensuring that we reached all of them, all of the time.”
Dilley ISD’s leap to upgrade its technology and provide scores of students with laptops over which they could continue their classes in 2020-21 was no small feat, Castro said, and involved the purchase of at least 375 hotspots with grant money.
“That helped a lot,” he said of the installation. “We did what we had to do.”
The superintendent acknowledges that the pandemic resulted in a setback in academic progress for almost all of the district’s students, as face-to-face interaction with teachers was impossible, and Zoom platform classroom instruction by internet was often patchy.
“The academic impact was negative,” Castro said. “Since we came out of the pandemic, we have recorded growth every year, and we are going to be back on track, but the covid year was a wash.
“We are not yet out of the covid learning loss,” he admitted. “It’s due to the diligence of our staff that we have made this much progress, but there is more work to do.”
Within months of recovering from the pandemic, Texas schools were thrust into a new crisis, and it was one that affected the security that schools had traditionally offered their children. A rising number of gun-related incidents in the state reached a peak with a May 2022 mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde at which 19 children and two teachers lost their lives.
“We had to review our position and ensure we were doing all we could to protect our children,” the superintendent said. “We found that it was because many of our facilities are quite new – the high school and elementary school – or recently refurbished, that we did, in fact, have many of the security features in place that the public and the state government were demanding.”
Castro is quick to point out that Dilley maintains a high level of security at all of its campuses and continues adding security features, both as reviews dictate and as the Texas governor has ordered. Ballistic film and replacement glass have been added to windows, doors have been replaced, secure vestibules have been established, and a network of surveillance cameras provides continual overview of all parts of the district.
Dilley has also added a second school resource officer, so that the district is patrolled by armed and specially trained policemen at all hours of the school day.
“All of our staff are also trained in active-shooter response and protection for our students,” Castro said. “One hundred percent of Dilley’s teachers are up to date on this, and they have additional training in cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR), which we believe is also vital in critical response.
“These are all a big plus for us,” the superintendent said. “The school board has approved these measures and has agreed to pay for improved fencing at the elementary school.”
The superintendent said he leaves Dilley ISD in its strongest ever financial position, a status of which he is proud and for which he takes partial credit.
“We now have at least fifteen to sixteen months’ worth of fund balance, which is up from only ten months’ worth in the past,” Castro said. “I’m proud of this as an all-time high for Dilley. While academics improved every year, we also worked on securing our financial position, and that has enabled us to make improvements without going out for bonds, such as the upgrades to our sports facilities.
“We were also able to give the biggest tax break ever to our residents,” he added.
Teacher retention, Castro said, has likewise strengthened at the district, due in large part to what he describes as incentives and a consistently positive attitude by the board towards the staff as a cohesive body.
“There were years recently when we had twenty-eight and thirty-two teacher vacancies, but this year we only have two,” he said. “This says a lot about our district and how much we support our staff.
“We have also established a set curriculum that wasn’t in place before,” he said. “It has greatly reduced stress and frustration among our teachers, and I believe that is also reflected in our teacher retention.”
Castro said he had hoped to serve Dilley ISD for at least another three years but that he feels compelled to move towards Houston and reduce the distance across which his family is spread.
“I hadn’t planned to leave this soon,” Castro said on Sunday. “Dilley will always have a special place in my heart, especially the board of trustees that has been so supportive and so focused on the children’s success.”