Crockett Principal Craig Shapiro was honored as Principal of the Year by the Austin Independent School District. He stands in the school’s courtyard, with banners displayed all around proudly showing the many accomplishments made by Crockett students.
by Joanne Foote
On May 29, the Austin Independent School District honored outstanding educators during the district’s annual Salute 2014 event at the Long Center. Craig Shapiro, Principal at David Crockett High School, received the district’s top honor for Principal of the Year.
Shapiro has served at Crockett since 2008. Over the past five years, graduation rates at Crockett have increased by fourteen percent, TAKS scores in math and science increased by more than 20 percent, and attendance has increased by over six percent.
About his role in bringing about these improvements, Shapiro says: “The accolade I most treasure is not the improvement in the data, but the climate at Crockett. Crockett is a place where students can be who they are without fear of judgment. There is no metric or test that can truly measure a moment like this one. Creating a culture where students feel this comfortable is a testament to the entire community.”
Two days before graduation, Shapiro was in the Crockett library, listening to the graduation speeches prepared by Valedictorian Erin White and Salutatorian Megan Sweeney. The investment in his students is evident, as he offered suggestions to the young adults about to give the biggest speech of their lives. He gave tips for giving a speech in a big venue like the Erwin Center, including what to do when there is applause, the value of making eye contact, making microphone adjustments, and watching posture and body movement. He would do this again the following day.
Shapiro has been the principal at Crockett since the fall of 2008, but before arriving here, his teaching roots began in his hometown of the Bronx, New York.
“I began my career in education in 1993, teaching English as a Second Language (ESL). My original plans, after obtaining my bachelor’s degree in Accounting from Pace University, was to work in that field, but it became quickly evident that I really wanted to teach. I contacted one of my former teachers at Christopher Columbus High School and inquired about a teaching opportunity, and the door was opened to begin my career in education.
“I don’t remember waking up one day and deciding to be a principal. I think the opportunities just aligned. There were a great number of people who helped me out tremendously along the way.”
During this time, Shapiro went back to school to earn his Masters degree for teaching English as a Second Language. “During my time as a teacher, one of my mentors, Dr. Norman Wechsler, who was the principal at DeWitt Clinton High School, took me under his wing and began developing me for an administration position, even though I didn’t really realize it at the time. While in school I earned dual master degrees, one to teach and also a second in School Administration and Supervision. After approximately ten years of teaching, Dr. Wechsler said it was time for me to move on and at that point, I applied and was offered an assistant principal position, followed by a position as a Principal.
“I think of my title more as ‘Principal Teacher.’ I haven’t stopped teaching; my classroom now is the teachers in the building and helping them be the best,” said Shapiro.
The decision to leave New York came via a cousin who had retired from the Marines and was living in Plano, Texas. “During a phone conversation, my cousin, who was becoming an assistant school principal, told me Texas was a wonderful place. After living all over the world with the military, he could have lived anywhere, but he chose Texas. So he encouraged me to check into Central Texas, since he thought I would like it. He said ‘Put your name in, but it may take a while.’ So, my wife, Loira and I came down for a visit. Within our two-week stay, I received a call from AISD, who was in the process of doing a national principal search, so I extended my stay a few days, drove to Austin and went for an interview,” Shapiro explained.
“When we returned to New York, my wife stated very clearly: ‘I don’t think they will want a guy from the Bronx, but if they ask you to come, I will go.’ And they asked me to come and here we are. In general, school operations are very similar across the board. The biggest initial adjustment was for my family, transitioning to a new state, and especially my daughter, who was entering seventh grade at the time. But we have all adjusted very nicely, and my daughter just graduated from Bowie High School. She thought it would be too weird to go to the same school where her dad is the principal,” he joked. Shapiro’s wife, Loira Ortiz, is a teacher in the Eanes district.
“My experiences in New York shaped me for coming to Austin. I was in the Bronx during 9-11, and understand how traumatic events can shape students and their families. On the day of September 11, 2001, I was working with my superintendent and was called to go upstairs to the tower in Morris High School. These old schools had incredible architecture and Morris had a tower. From the southern tip of Bronx I could see the World Trade Towers on fire. My superintendent said, ‘We have to go.’ My wife, daughter and I made it home safely, but things were so strange.
“The next day the superintendent, Dr. Wechsler, had us all come into work. Sitting in the room with my colleagues, we just sat staring at each other, stunned by the overwhelming tragedy. Norman knew that we just needed to sit there. Over 100 of our families were affected in the Bronx High Schools, and the stories of both death, and heroism, played out through our students.
“That whole situation, maybe that’s what also led me here—the fact that in the back of my mind, you always wonder if it will happen again. Things go on, the Yankees still won and the Mets still lost. The lessons I learned in New York helped me a lot when Crockett went through a rough year in 2010. We had three students die in various accidents within the same week at the beginning of the school year. I think I went into auto-pilot to help the students and families through those tragedies,” reflected Shapiro. “As a principal, you are going to have these things. It’s how you rally yourself and everyone around you. I believe it helped with the turn around in the school. Those tragedies brought the Crockett Community closer together.”
Upon arriving at Crockett, Shapiro did not come in with preconceived ideas about what needed to be changed, instead he spent the first three months looking around the school and observing.
“What I wanted to do was look around. I asked the teachers, staff and administrators to answer one question for me? ‘When I walk into a classroom, what should I see?’ They came up with a list. Then I walked around and observed, to see if what was on that list existed. If it didn’t, I asked what did they need to make it happen—such as professional development to redefine expectations—and ultimately, together, we created a five-year plan for Crockett, which is available online. We set out to change the school in a variety of ways: structurally, grading systems, behaviors; and with very clear goals and outcomes, and data to support that things were getting better. I had a very senior member of the staff tell me in 30 years at the school, that she had never been asked these types of questions, and that was telling to me. How do you not include your staff, who have so much expertise, in the decision-making, and finding solutions together?
“In a safe environment, where people feel secure in their jobs, they begin to feel unleashed from the ‘we always do it this way’ mindset, so they could be freed to try new things. People must be passionate to create good change. When you know you aren’t going to be fired, then you are no longer scared to speak out for change and then contribute to that change. It’s great to watch as the principal. I think that there is a sense of pride and community among our staff.”
When asked about the culture of Crockett, Shapiro feels like what is going on here is fairly unique among high schools. “What I am about to say, you have to see it to believe it, but we do not have cliques on the campus. So many students are in multiple activities, so they interact across disciplines. That’s the way it works here. You might see students from the football team, band, and debate all sitting together in the lunchroom. There has always been a feeling of family atmosphere here, but for a time in Crockett’s history, the number of incidents happening within the school was clouding the view. We have very few now. We work very hard with Social Emotional Learning (the SEL program is now on most campuses in the district) and the acceptance of others. Walking the halls, there is a very nice buzz that runs the building,” commented Shapiro.
“When I arrived, many on staff were concerned about the hallway environment between classes, with lots of student tardy’s, and the overall feeling when you walk onto campus, but everyone has reported that the environment has changed. The school is orderly, and when issues do arise, as they always will at any school, we are very proactive, instead of reactive. And students are asking adults on campus for help when they need it. As we see issues come up, we create teacher-designed lessons to address issues and I think that has helped tremendously.”
What was the hook with Crockett? “I walked into a building. All previous schools I taught in were inner city buildings—multi-floor, escalators, nothing like the courtyard of Crockett. If you see Crockett from the outside, you would never in a million years realize this courtyard was inside. It looks like a college campus. The courtyard is gorgeous, with lots of space for students to maneuver through the halls. It is just as important to take care of the building as it is the academics—to instill a sense of pride. There is a reason banks look the way they do, to instill confidence and a sense of accomplishment. There were good things going on here, but no evidence of it anywhere.”
It became Shapiro’s mission to change that.
“I started hanging banners and displaying the trophies in the courtyard every time a team won. It works. For every accomplishment our students achieved, banners went up. Our football team won District championships in 2008 for the first time in possibly our school’s history. When they win, they can see their banner. And it’s not just for sports: UIL academics, Theater, Arts, and Band—there’s a banner; Teacher of the Year: banner. Chances are, as a student at Crockett, you are represented in one of those banners. Students see their achievements everywhere. It takes time, but is fun to watch as both the school and our students start believing in themselves and this school. Interim District Superintendent Dr. Cruz says I’m the cheerleader for the school. If the community inside the school doesn’t know about all the positive things going on, how do you expect the outside larger community to know?” Shapiro said.
As far as getting the community at large to understand the change going on within the school, Shapiro says it’s sometimes frustrating that the sea change is slower that he would like.
“I’m not entirely sure what happened here in the many years or decades before my time, but some in the outside community still see Crockett frozen in a tumultuous time. “The day I signed my contract, I drove over to the school. The ink wasn’t even dry on my contract when I was approached by a gentleman who said to me, ‘You’re the new principal from the Bronx right?’ And he said ‘Glad you’re here, you know about discipline, coming from a place with metal detectors. I remember there was a big fight in 1985.’ I knew from that point that we had some work to do, including repairing the reputation of the school.”
Shapiro continued: “There is a sense that schools can be frozen in time and don’t evolve. Whatever memory an individual might have is where their perception of the school becomes stuck, but schools evolve. We’re coming out of that now, but I still have a number of people who say, ‘I’ve heard such and such about this school.’ But we do a very good job of serving our community. The students are wondering now how do we get over that hump of what Crockett used to be? To use a marketing phrase, it’s a ‘branding issue,’ and it takes the community time to trust that what they are hearing about the school’s evolution is true. There has to be a critical mass for people to believe it is true. And everything I’ve read says it can take 5-7 years for that to happen, for what is currently going on inside our walls to get out there, whether it’s uphill or downhill. Schools do go in waves as communities change, but I will say I’m not getting that look anymore that says, ‘Oh, you work there.’ It’s a slow process and there will be some people that will never acknowledge the change. My question to the broader community is this: “Have you been in Crockett lately?”
Coming from New York, one thing that is decidedly different in Texas is Friday Night Football. “It’s nothing like this where I come from. But Friday Night Football is now one of my favorite things. I’m a big sports guy. I love it all, baseball, basketball, etc., and wrestling is my favorite spectator sport. But something special happens on Friday night—we get together as a community during football season. All combined— the kids in the band, the football team, the cheerleaders and the Tex-Anns dance team—we have 300 plus kids involved in the spectacle, plus the friends in the stands with their families. The Tex-Anns are dancing, the team is on the field, the band is playing, parents are in the stands and the community gets together for nine or more weeks, and we become one. What a great way to spend a Friday night. I make all the football games. Win or lose, the kids are supportive. We didn’t have that in the Bronx. Now I get it. It’s not just about football. Sometimes the game itself is not the most important event.
“My first year here, in 2008, we had a game against Travis High School, our rival. Now, I don’t hold anything against Travis, but this turned out to be a night really about Crockett. We were down by a lot, but had begun to catch up, but then near the end of the game, it was fourth down with 22-yards to go. Our quarterback was about to be sacked, but he threw the ball, it was caught and we scored at the end of the game. From that moment on, I think it was the realization of the community that we can take a punch and get up again. We are resilient. We have grit, and without that, it’s hard to maneuver the rest of your life. I really feel that was the first turning point for the school, even though we had been rated Academically Unacceptable that same year by the state. We came back. We deserved to win. That mental model is now in all our programs. That change has propelled the school in the classroom as well. It was a Crockett moment, in front of all those people, and it was one of the most exciting sporting events I have ever witnessed,” said Shapiro.
The student perception of Crockett is one of a close-knit family. “Our students look out for each other and are very accepting of each other. We are a diverse population, but not just in the traditional sense of the word, but truly of thought and personality. When students walk down the hall, and one might see a guitar player, skateboarder and honor student together, and their differences would mean nothing to them. They just see friends,” Shapiro explained.
In addition to the general academic classes offered to all high school students, Crockett also has programs in Auto Body and Auto Tech, Construction Technology, and Cosmetology. In the last few years, Crockett added the Einstein Program.
“We added the Einstein program for those students who are working ahead of the general curriculum. Sometimes these students are forgotten, but it is just as important to address their needs, to help propel them forward. It is not a separate school, but their core classes are accelerated to meet their academic goals. The goal is to still be one school,” said Shapiro. Other changes include double-blocking some classes, so that students are in them every day, instead of the every other day block schedule.
Support programs that have been added or grown are: AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination—which aims to close the achievement gap by preparing all students for college and other postsecondary work), Communities in Schools (CIS), and Lonestar Circle of Care. “We have students and families who need extra support, working through all kinds of issues, some are the basic teenager issues, but for some, they need further assistance. We have a tiered system of support in place. With all these things, it helps students stay in school with not only the ultimate goal of graduation, but also success in life,” he said.
For those looking for hard data, Shapiro offers the following statistics:
• Graduation rates have increased 14% since 2008.
• 100% of the senior class applied to college, and approximately 60% completed the FASFA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid for both federally and college-sponsored student financial aid).
• Attendance went from 87% in 2008 to 92.1% in 2013, predicted at 93% this year.
• Crockett has not the missed the state accountability since 2008.
As far as the award goes, Shapiro is very grateful. “I have a lot of support from the district administration and the staff here at Crockett. I can’t say that enough. But instead of Principal of the Year, I wish it said School of the Year. To do this type of work, you need a lot of people to make it happen, our teachers, staff and students. It is an affirmation of the work we have done here the last few years. It is fun to watch the school make strides and I think the kids feel it. It’s a public statement by the district and the school board, which sent a message loud and clear to the larger community. My job is to serve this community.”
When asked if he will hang a banner in the courtyard for his own award, he deferred to the staff and replied, “For me, it’s kind of embarrassing. I won’t order my own. It really is an award for the school. The students wanted a place that they could call home and be proud of. Crockett is definitely something to be proud of.”