We interviewed Emily Castillo, the head and founder of Ethos Classical, a tuition-free charter school in Atlanta, Georgia. Ethos Classical focuses deeply on the facets of a liberal education while fostering a joyous and highly involved school community. Partnering with CTS allows Ethos Classical to achieve its mission of literacy-based education, replete with creativity, predicated on operational excellence.
Tell us about starting this school.
I began the process of opening the school in 2015. I saw a Timehop picture exactly five years ago of our first board meeting. Atlanta is a politically challenging city for charter schools. We initially worked for three years to go through the local school districts. They haven’t approved a new charter school in 10 years though. Finally, we received authorization from the state, and this is our second year of operation in Atlanta. You apply, and then plan, and then open up. It’s a long process!
Why start a charter school in Atlanta, in such an environment, knowing the amount of work and the amount of time it would take?
I’ve got the best job in the entire world. The challenges are all worth it. I started my career in education as a high school English teacher and also coached teachers. Later, I was part of a founding team at KIPP High School in Nashville. Through all those experiences, we continued to develop a really clear vision of what a truly equitable education was for children, regardless of what their background is socioeconomically, making sure that they have a truly equitable experience.
I grew up in the Southeast, so I always imagined calling Atlanta home someday. Being an educator, I know what’s possible when children are given an extraordinary education. The most tremendous privilege that I can imagine professionally is to be able to be trusted with people’s children and to deliver on the promises that we make to them.
I wanted to create a space where scholars are academically challenged while being supported socially and emotionally. I also wanted to provide real creative outlets for children. These are important for their learning and growth development to help these children identify their own sense of self. I hadn’t seen an elementary school that did all of these things simultaneously. My experience with other schools helped me create a clear vision for what I wanted to create.
What, specifically, does the “Classical” mean in “Ethos Classical”, and what are the grade levels served?
We use a really liberal definition of what classical means. It’s a focus on literacy and the arts, like a liberal arts school. We’re kindergarten through fifth grade. In Georgia, you have to open with a tested grade every year. Research shows that the smaller a school starts, the stronger it is, so we’ve adopted a slow-growth model. We have three tested grades, but we have to keep that.
What is your school trying to accomplish for its students and for the larger community? And do parents or the community ever suggest a liberal education isn’t necessary for these grade levels?
Some families may not choose us because of that thinking, and that is totally fine. Literacy is the lifeblood of all learning. STEM is great, but having only that skillset early on limits children from exploring the fullness of who they are and what they’re able to do with their lives.
Here at Ethos Classical, we recognize that we are a very specific type of school that some families will be drawn to, and it might not meet the needs of other families. We focus on literacy and the arts. That’s where the “classical” comes into play. When we say “classical”, we don’t mean that we study Greek philosophers and poets. We focus on building a rock-solid foundation of literacy skills for our children while simultaneously helping them develop a really positive and affirmed sense of self, identity, and creativity through the arts.
We have tripled the literacy instruction of a traditional school district. We prioritize our staffing model to ensure there are two teachers per classroom in all literacy instruction. For our arts programming, we add an additional arts program each year.
Besides the overall mission, what stands out about Ethos?
Extraordinary customer service. We try to provide a private school experience in a public school where the family is seen, they get individualized attention, and their scholar’s unique needs are being met. I use the word extraordinary to describe Ethos, something tailored and individualized for every interaction that we have with people. You see a lot of joy in our schoolhouse. It is a joyful, warm place. You would see a love of reading and of books and of words. We focus a whole lot on that. Also, you would see creativity.
Why did you decide to partner with CTS?
Initially, we were working with a technology group that had never really worked with a school district before, and they did not ‘get us’ at all. Our operations have to be locked tight at all levels so that teachers can focus on teaching and learning exclusively. Technology is a huge part of that.
We brought on CTS in March or April of this Spring, and they had to deal with a mess of all the different systems that our last provider had not installed in a way that made sense. Nothing was really talking to each other. Things were missing, so CTS had to fill in a lot of technological gaps. We had moved to a 100% virtual model at the point when CTS was brought in. That became very urgent to make sure that Chromebooks are functioning in the way that we need them to and that it’s easy for families to use.
What has CTS changed or done to shift the previous direction?
CTS has been truly incredible. We have loved every bit of them. CTS has done so much to repair the trust that was missing between the organization of Ethos Classical and their specific needs, which are more pervasive now than ever for families and teachers, of feeling seen and responded to for technology. CTS came in and immediately fixed important technological issues. They’ve also been a really good thought partner since their staff has experience with the operations of schools. CTS has helped us through the prioritization of cost and investments with technology. They’re able to communicate directly with families on the frontline in an appropriate and engaging way, which we very much appreciate.
Has the partnership with CTS changed how you view technology for your school? What’s the theme, now?
Anything is possible with the right technology. The sky’s the limit when you have technology systems and supports that you trust. We’re not limited at all. In the past, there were limitations to what we could do programmatically because of our lack of service with that other company. With CTS, whatever we need to have happen, will happen.
It’s a volatile moment in history. How has CTS collaborated with Ethos to adapt to the challenges of remote learning?
Together with CTS, we were intentional in the way that we set up our distance learning program, with a combination of live and synchronous and asynchronous instruction in order to meet the needs of our children. We could not have created a strong distance learning program without technology.
We take attendance three times throughout the day to make sure that scholars are engaged. Right now, we’re sitting at 93% of our children engaged throughout the entire school day. That’s pretty remarkable given that some school districts have 70% of their children not logging in at all.
If you were to envision three years from now, what does that look like, especially considering current events?
Our mission doesn’t change no matter what the circumstances are. Our commitment remains the same, unwavering, and undeterred by any of the circumstances. The paths that we have to take to make that mission happen will certainly look different, but the outcome ultimately is always an extraordinary education for every child that we are trusted to serve, no matter the circumstances. I hope, within three years, we increase our sense of confidence in ourselves and what we’re able to do against some of the greatest odds.