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A Better Education for Staten Island’s Students

Tim Castanza ’10

by Emmalee Eckstein

When Tim Castanza entered college, he had absolutely no designs on studying education of any kind.

“Everyone in my family is some sort of teacher – everyone,” he insists. “So when I got to St. Joe’s, I said that I would absolutely not be a teacher. That I would be different.”

That kind of conviction now seems strange when you review Castanza’s resume, which is filled exclusively with jobs in the very field that he was so passionate about avoiding. He has taught in the School District of Philadelphia, coached new educators with Teach for America, and served as a planner in the New York City Department of Education.

Over the past three years, Castanza has been focusing his passion into the founding of Bridge Prep Charter School, the first and only public charter school in Staten Island whose curriculum is built for students experiencing language-based learning differences. Castanza is the school’s executive director.

Castanza’s first exposure to helping students with different learning needs came when, after realizing his original major — international relations — was not fueling his passion, he switched to education in his junior year. He signed up for Teach for America to bolster his classroom experience, and in filling out his application, he breezily indicated he would be comfortable teaching special education.

“I thought, sure, special ed? I know what that means,” he recalls. “But now I realize I had absolutely no idea what that meant.”

As his placements moved him around Philadelphia, Castanza came to notice something pivotal. Even in the best performing schools, it became apparent that not every school is good for every student. For instance, his Corrective Reading students at The Academy of Palumbo, a high-performing South Philadelphia public school, were struggling through phonics on a daily basis and forced to carry around humbling, neon pink text books while their peers read Othello and Hamlet.

“Other students were talking about going to college and these kids just wanted to be able to read,” he remembers. “They deserved better than phonics homework.”

Castanza adapted and did what he reasons any good teacher would have done. “I thought of a way to stretch our curriculum to fit the needs of my students.”

Soon enough, his Corrective Reading students were carrying around their own copies of Othello and Hamlet – the difference being, these were versioned for their reading levels.

Eventually, he left the classroom for a position in New York City’s Department of Education, and soon after, Staten Island’s borough president reached out to Castanza with a proposition: lead the creation of a learning space for Staten Island’s most at-risk students.

Although starting a public school for an underserved population is an invigorating prospect, Castanza immediately felt trepidation at leading the charge. Typically, learning differences are accompanied by co-morbid disabilities like ADHD, speech and language impairment and a variety of behavioral concerns.

“It’s true,” he admits. “We could have kids with autism, we could have gifted kids who are above grade level, we could have dyscalculia – we get it. It’s scary and, yes, we could potentially be serving a lot of different needs. But that’s what public school is supposed to do.”

The strategy is paying off. Bridge Prep’s services are in such high demand that, like many charter schools, the school needed to hold a lottery to fill the 86 seats available for its first cohort of first and second graders this year.

“There’s definitely going to be space for celebration here but it’s important to be mindful of the human side,” he insists. “We received 142 applications for those seats. That means a lot of families with no other options aren’t going to get life-changing news. It’s important to be conscious of that.”

Though the school has barely just opened its doors, Bridge Prep’s team of experts is already looking to its future, working with partners in higher education on how to give better instruction to educators who work with students experiencing learning differences.

“We think we’re doing something really special, here. This is the most worthwhile endeavor I have ever taken on,” Castanza beams.

Emmalee Eckstein is associate director of communications at Saint Joseph’s University.