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Sports, schools, communities: Character revealed

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Posted on September 29, 2011 |
By Karl Lindholm



John Castle uses a sports analogy to explain the beginning of school this year for him and the schools and communities he serves:

“When I was captain of the football team at Middlebury College in my senior year, I was injured in the second game, and missed the next three games.

“I was devastated and set my mind to ‘recovery’ so I could continue to play. I wanted to come back as quickly as I possibly could. Often you don’t appreciate something ’til it’s lost.

“While I was out, I realized how much I depended on my teammates and coaches and how important our shared efforts were. On a small personal level, I learned that adversity is an opportunity to learn and grow.

“I have always believed that sports don’t build character, they reveal character.”

John, superintendent of schools in the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, then makes the connection to the enormous challenges the communities in his school district faced in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene:

“I believe that the character of our communities in Vermont has been revealed. This crisis has revealed how important community is. People have sacrificed for the good of their communities. We have pulled together.

“We are not polarized and self-interested. We acknowledged our interdependence. This adversity inspired a shared sense of accountability and reciprocity.”

John Castle, Middlebury ’87, is beginning his third year as superintendent. His district includes children and schools from some of the towns (Brandon, Chittenden, Mendon and others) most damaged by floods after Tropical Storm Irene on Sunday, Aug. 28, just as schools were preparing to open.

The Barstow Memorial Elementary School, serving Chittenden and Mendon, put a face on the devastation in Vermont for the world to see in an article in The New York Timeson Sept. 11. The Times’ piece described the efforts that children and parents and communities were making to get to school. Portions of the main roads, Routes 7, 4 and 100, were washed out, so kids trekked a half-mile on a path through the woods to get to the buses that took them to school.

“We communicated with school board members and parents who suggested this was possible, “ John says. “Becky (Congdon, the transportation coordinator) and I went to the site and realized, ‘this is do-able!’ By the Friday after the storm, nearly all the kids enrolled at Barstow were there.

“It became a celebrated act of defiance: ‘We are going to get to school!’”

John is effusive in describing the efforts of the people in the communities in his school district, but quick to deflect any personal credit — he gives a “just doing my job” shrug.

He cites, however, the “phenomenal” efforts of Becky Congdon. “She drove on every road before we opened on the Tuesday after Labor Day. We were not going to send a school bus on a road that was not safe, or over a bridge that was not certified.”

John Castle was raised in the small community of Holland, Vt., in the Northeast Kingdom, and there his fascination with the dynamics of communities was cultivated. His Masters’ thesis in History (from Trinity College in Connecticut) was titled “Communes, Collectives and Counter-Cultural Living in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.”

The working title of his thesis for his Ed.D from UVM is “The Community School at a Crossroads.”

“I worry,” he says, “about the effects of school consolidation on our communities.”

Athletics were important to John as he grew into the educational leader he has become. His dad was his football coach at North Country High and he played football and lacrosse at Middlebury. He has coached at all levels since then, first at the college level at Trinity, Middlebury and St. Michael’s colleges.

While teaching at Colchester High, he coached lacrosse at South Burlington and won a state championship. Since then he has coached younger kids: “I have successfully moved down the ladder in my coaching career,” he jokes.

Before coming to Rutland Northeast, he was principal at North Country Union High School in Newport (seven years) and Holland Elementary School in Derby Line (five years).

John is devoted to Vermont, and the Northeast Kingdom, but is hardly parochial. He calls his upbringing “eclectic.” His father was a radical Episcopal priest in Jersey City in the turbulent 1960s, who brought his young family to rural Vermont, bought an old farmhouse and 80 acres in the Kingdom for $6,000, ran a store, preached and coached football.

His mother says John “was conceived in Vermont,” but the “ugly truth,” in John’s words, is that he was born in Jersey City.

Later, his dad returned to urban life, leading St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Harlem. He lives now, in his 80s, back in Holland, as “feisty as ever,” according to John.

John Castle, Vermonter, resides in Cornwall with his wife Jill, a special educator at MUMS, daughter Emma, a ninth grader at MUHS, son Parker, in the seventh grade at MUMS, and their beagle, Elsa. 

Schools, and communities, are at the core of John Castle’s life and being.

Karl Lindholm can be reached at Lindholm@middlebury.edu. He will not be taking any questions or reading any comments about the Red Sox.

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