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Lessons learned on way to top

Caposey’s rapid ascent had some speed bumps

OREGON – Driven – adjective; relentlessly compelled by the need to accomplish a goal; very hard-working and ambitious.

See also: PJ Caposey, principal of Oregon High School.

Caposey is just 32 years old, but already he has accomplished more than some educators twice his age. But his rapid rise from unprepared sociology teacher at a rough, South Side Chicago high school to respected principal at a nationally recognized, small-town high school has not been without its trials.

The young educator is tall and broad-shouldered and flashes an easy, boyish smile. He is aggressive yet genial. He oozes confidence with a healthy splash of humility. 

Caposey did not set out to be an educator; in fact, the Chicago-area native planned to play college baseball. But Caposey, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at 17, shifted gears. Inspired by the teachers who helped him complete his studies from home and boosted his spirits, he majored in education and graduated from Eastern Illinois University with a degree and a plan to make a difference.

The Golden Apple Scholar taught sociology at Percy Lavon Julian High School, a high-needs school where the “wild 100s” meet the affluent, white neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago. He connected with his students. He empowered them. But he didn’t really educate them.

“I thought I was a great teacher, but I definitely was not,” he said. “I didn’t understand what good instruction was. I knew [how to build] relationships, but I didn’t know how to be standards-based and outcome-driven and how to move kids forward.”

Caposey did not intend to become a school administrator, either; he figured the classroom, not the principal’s office, was his place. But he got a wake-up call.

“One of my professors said, ‘You need to be an administrator,’” he said. “I was on the fence. I wanted to move up, but I wanted to be in the classroom, too. He said, ‘Well, why do you want to be in the classroom?’ And I said, ‘Because my kids need me.’

“And then he said, ‘You can influence maybe 100 to 150 kids a day in your classroom, or you can impact so many more in a whole building.’ That stuck with me.”

The teacher, with less than 3 years of experience under his belt and not a department or committee chairmanship to speak of, landed an assistant principal job at Auburn High School in Rockford. He was hired to change the school culture – reduce behavior issues and improve discipline. He was well-received.

“They were so thirsty for leadership; it had been so long since someone had been in their classroom,” he said. “They were so starved for tips and strategies because, up until then, it had been constant putting out fires.”

Caposey, in his second year as assistant principal, was comfortable. He was ambitious and ready to make changes. He started to question the principal.

“After a meeting one day, he pulled me aside, and I thought maybe I had questioned him one too many times,” he said.

“He said, ‘You’re ready,’ and I said, ‘Ready for what?’ And he said, ‘For your own building.’ At that point, I hadn’t really thought about that.”

The then-28-year-old applied for assistant principal jobs at several larger, suburban schools and for principal positions at a few smaller schools, including Oregon High School. He was the second choice among a second batch of candidates for the job, and he was tabbed for the position after the district and its first-choice candidate could not agree on a contract. He assumed the school’s top job in 2009.

The school – and the district and city, too – was unlike anything he had ever known: Oregon is a small, mostly white, middle-class town in rural northwestern Illinois. The climate at the school was good. Its academics were pretty good, too. But the district had goals to improve student achievement, challenge students with college-level opportunities, and engage the community.

Things were tough at first.

Caposey was a bulldog: He instituted some marked changes without input or collaboration from anyone. Teachers were angry. Students, who were upset that a couple of their favorite teachers had been let go for financial reasons, walked out in protest one day.

“It was just my vision enforced upon the building,” he said. “It didn’t go really well. … Everything I did was textbook, but nothing I did was collaborative. I didn’t go slow to go fast; I just went fast right away. It was a disaster. In the end, what was accomplished was positive, but for a while, I would walk down the hall and I was like the grim reaper with doors closing left and right.”

The young go-getter speaks honestly of his first year in Oregon. He remembers the chill in the air, the icy stares and harsh tones, the rap of slamming doors.

“I had screwed up, but I was in too deep to pull back,” he said. “I thought I could outwork or outsmart anything, that I could just will it to take place. But I kind of forgot about the people aspect of it.”

Things turned around soon, though.

Caposey softened up (just a bit) and focused on connecting with staff and students, creating an environment where teachers feel safe to take risks and students want to learn. Test scores were up. Teachers and students were engaged and enthusiastic about school.

“It was a really humbling experience,” he said. “Sometimes I think maybe we’re having success because I was [so aggressive]. I think that, by nature, change is hard and that practice sometimes creates belief as opposed to belief creating practice. I still think – I know – things could have been different, that I could have handled it better.”

The school since has been named among the best high schools in the nation by U.S. News and World Report.

The recognition is nice, but it has come only as a result of a lot of hard work, Superintendent Tom Mahoney said.

“PJ was bold and decisive with much of what he has done, and he has helped the school grow, and the staff and the community have really supported that growth,” Mahoney said. “He set a goal and a very ambitious path for the district and himself, and we’re happy to support him.”

Caposey has won a couple of accolades himself, including the Horace Mann Partners in Education Award from the Illinois Principals Association. He also was a finalist for the prestigious Outstanding Young Educator of the Year Award, given by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Caposey this month published a book, too; “Building a Culture of Support: Strategies for School Leaders” is a practical guide to building a healthy school culture – the right way, not his way.

“I never intended to write a book,” he said. “It was always something that was in the back of my mind; it was always something I wanted to do. But it was never the next step for me. ... I wanted it to be the next great American theory-based education book, but I was encouraged to write it in a more practical, ‘here are some things you can do now’ style. I didn’t want it to be negative. I wanted it to be positive and practical.”

From a fresh-out-of-college teacher who never thought he would leave the classroom to an up-and-coming administrator who aspires to be a superintendent, Caposey is happy.

“I love what I do now,” he said. “It’s completely different than I ever expected. But it’s great.”

PJ Caposey

Family: He and his wife, Jacquie, a teacher at Washington Academy in Rockford, have two children, Jameson, 6, and Jackson, 5.

Hometown: Grew up in New Lenox; now lives in Oregon

Hobbies: "Life pretty much revolves around the kids and the family, but I love sports, including and especially fantasy sports."

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