DLC Departing

Students Say Goodbye to Interim Upper School Choir Teacher


Photo credit: Naomi Geller

De la Cruz with members of Grape Jam after the Spring Choral Concert.

“You know when there are moments when you want to say something and you have to catch your breath, not because you’re tired, but it’s just so pent up and you can’t get the words out?” Upper School choir director Justin de la Cruz said. This was how he felt as he broke the news to his students that he won’t be their choir teacher next year. Many students walked out of that Tuesday morning choir class crying. Most were in shock. And some simply refused to enroll in choir for next year because de la Cruz wouldn’t be the one teaching it.

De la Cruz has been teaching choir as a one year substitute teacher at Parker since the beginning of the year. He was hired for the job after former Upper School choir teacher Emma Castaldi announced that she would be taking a year long sabbatical.

As the year went on, de la Cruz realized that Parker was becoming a home to him. “The prospect of being able to build something here and continue to foster those connections and making music was so enticing,” he said. So when Castaldi made the decision not to return to Parker, de la Cruz applied to permanently fill the position. 

His interview day involved leading a sample choir lesson and being interviewed by administration, the music team, and members of the Student Interview and Recommendation Board (SIRB). De la Cruz is a firm believer in being as authentic as possible. “I felt I showed everything, so I don’t have any regrets about what I did during my interview day,” de la Cruz said.

Over April break, de la Cruz received a call saying that the job was offered to somebody else. “‘How am I going to tell these kids?’” he said, “that was the only thing going through my mind because everything is predicated on these students, so I have to let them know that I won’t be there.”

Sophomore Annoshae Mirza was sad to hear the news that de la Cruz would not be coming back to teach choir next year, and so were many of the choir students. “The student body reacted in such a visceral, physical way,” she said. “People were crying.” Mirza noted that this student reaction hasn’t really occurred with the departure of other teachers in the past. 

Mirza was also surprised upon hearing the announcement, as she had thought that he would be a “shoo-in” for the position. “Not only did he do such phenomenal work this year, technically choir-wise, but I got the sense that everyone loved him,” Mirza said. 

Although de la Cruz acknowledges and respects that the administration had their reasons to not rehire him, he doesn’t agree with their decision. “I am always going to believe that I was the person for the job because I had done the job,” de la Cruz said.

In response to the administration’s decision not to rehire de la Cruz, Mirza wrote a letter to the administration, drawing on Parker’s encouragement of students to share their voices and opinions. She wrote the letter because she felt that someone had to tell the administration that they had made a mistake. Writing the letter, Mirza aimed to do three things. “I wanted to show that people really cared about him, I wanted to show that he actually got work done, and I wanted to show that there was no one that could replace him,” Mirza said. 

At the end of the letter, Mirza encouraged the administration to consider the opinions and voices of the students more in all future decisions such as this one involving de la Cruz. “The students resoundingly said that they wanted him back. So what’s the point of having SIRB? What’s the point of students showing their own opinions about the hiring process if you’re not going to rehire someone that we really want?” 

Grape Jam member and sophomore Lola Yee echoes this sentiment. “Parker claims to listen a lot to their students. But after their decision to not have DLC teach back at Parker next year, it kind of shows that Parker doesn’t really listen to the student body, even though they say they do,” Yee said.

After the letter was signed by 50 fellow students, Mirza delivered it to the administration, and has received no communication in response.

Middle School choir teacher Rob Denien has witnessed de la Cruz grow as an educator and person. “Every day that goes by is a day that DLC becomes more confident as a teacher,” he said. “He’s finding his voice, he’s learning how to shape sound and articulate what he wants to hear and how to get there, and he’s having fun while doing so.”

Upper School science teacher Gigi Mathews has had the chance to get to know de la Cruz over the course of the year and they have bonded over their shared Filipino culture. De la Cruz’s high energy and music choices were impressive to Mathews, and gave her the impression that “he really knew what he was doing.”

“I really appreciated how interactive with the student body he was,” Yee said. Whenever he isn’t teaching, de la Cruz has made it a priority to “wander” through the school and have conversations with people. He believes that teaching is all about forming connections. Often seen with his skateboard in hand, he would talk with students who aren’t in choir and students in lower grades. Even after only one year teaching at Parker, de la Cruz knows many teachers and students in different divisions by name.

“He makes an effort to know us all as individuals and I think he really exemplifies what Parker means when they say that people should help build a community,” Mirza said.

After his first year as a choir teacher, de la Cruz’s love for the job has only been strengthened. “This is what I was meant to do,” he said, “Over the course of this year, I learned that this is the best job in the world, and I have been reminded of that every day.”

In May, de la Cruz interviewed for a position at Niles West High School in Skokie, Ill. He prepared a presentation that answered sixteen questions. On one of the slides, de la Cruz had put a picture of the October choir MX and the Grape Jam concert. When he flipped to that slide, he took a moment and smiled. The question was “What is the greatest joy of being a teacher?” And de la Cruz responded, “The students. 1,000 percent.”

Quickly identifying his enthusiasm and passion for teaching music, Niles West High School called de la Cruz on the same day of his interview to offer him the job, and he accepted.

Concert Choir’s performance of the last song of the Spring Choral Concert, “In Meeting We Are Blessed,” is de la Cruz’s favorite memory from this year. He said to the audience, “How lucky am I that the hardest part of my job is having to say goodbye?” Students donned red, teary faces as the song ended, applause rang in the air, and the stage was flooded with students waiting in line to hug de la Cruz and tell him how much they will miss him. The feeling was mutual. “I’m so incredibly grateful for them and I’m going to miss them so much,” he said. “But I know that they’re going to continue to do wonderful things, and I’ve got their back always.”