No Longer Underdogs

See below for a feature about Kristie Langbehn, one of the outstanding principals in our Chicago Principals Fellowship program. The 2018-19 Fellowship application is now open. Click here to see if you are eligible, and apply by April 6th. 

In 2011, Principal Kristie Langbehn was charged with the monumental task of turning around the struggling Pablo Casals Elementary School in Humboldt Park. In her very first year as a principal, together with a team of four veteran and 26 brand-new teachers, Kristie learned through trial by fire. They battled low reading scores, high poverty and a teachers’ strike. However, Kristie is no stranger to tough situations. “Growing up in rural Iowa, I learned what it meant to be an underdog,” she says. “We were made fun of for being farm kids. That drives me still, proving everybody wrong.”

Six years later, rebranded as Casals School of Excellence, the school has achieved a 1+ rating, the highest possible for Chicago Public Schools, and students are averaging in the 97th percentile for reading growth on the district’s standardized test. Casals and Kristie aren’t underdogs anymore.

Looking back at those first few years, Kristie is thankful that she didn’t quite know what she was getting herself into. She says, “I underestimated the emotional piece of the job. I didn’t know I would love my school, my teachers and my kids so much that when bad things happen it would be devastating. It’s so personal.” Kristie says that this personal connection motivates her even on those tough days. She starts her morning by watching Oprah’s SuperSoul Sunday or another motivational video, and shares this motivation with students during their morning meeting.

“I appreciate my teachers so much for sticking with me through some of those mistakes I made early on,” Kristie says, while thinking of how far her she and her staff have come since year one. “I think on both sides, we just gave each other grace. We were all new, we all made mistakes, but we were all in it for the children.” Kristie still holds the same values today, and has hired five first-year teachers for the 2017-18 school year. “If their hearts are in the right place and teaching is their calling,” Kristie says, “then that’s what matters. I can teach them the instructional piece.” New for this school year, veteran teachers will mentor first-year teachers to provide extra support.

Six years in, Kristie and her staff have grown tremendously and are looking for new ways to push themselves. Kristie will be joining the 2017 cohort of the Chicago Principals Fellows. “I’m always pushing and challenging my teachers to stretch themselves and continue to learn and grow,” she says. “I felt like it was time for me to do that for myself. We got through the heavy lift of opening the school and setting the culture, so the time is right to continue my learning.”

With all of the successes she’s experienced, Kristie is excited to see what successes the next six years will bring.