Michael Astudillo began kindergarten at Columbia Elementary in Annandale in 1982. Fast forward 39 years, and Astudillo is now beginning his first year as the principal of the school. While Astudillo has certainly changed over the years, his fondness for the school has not.
“The school had a warm and welcoming feeling to me and my family after moving from another country, the school had a home away from home kind of feel. My parents had immigrated from Colombia, and they took night classes to learn English while my father worked three jobs.” Astudillo said. “Columbia Elementary is the hub of a tight-knit community, a place where kids from every nationality, background and demographic can be welcomed with open arms by loving teachers and staff who care about the wellbeing of students and their education. We want to make kids feel a sense of belonging after their virtual year, now they can be in person, and we can help them socially and emotionally to make those connections, find their niche and motivate them as a person.”
Astudillo called Annandale home for 18 years before heading off to college and the area still holds a special place in his heart, even if things have changed since he was a child. “I am looking forward to meeting the community and reconnecting with the community that gave so much to me,” he said. “Things have changed, and I want to reconnect with families in the community, connect back with the heritage and pride of Annandale. I am excited to make those personal connections.”
Before serving in this role, Astudillo served in teaching roles across the county for 17 years. But being able to go from student to principal has helped Astudillo reconnect with what it was like being an FCPS student. “It has been amazing to go from student to principal. I have feelings of nostalgia and everyday all of the sudden I remember things like walking around the halls, and it brings back great memories,” the principal said. “It has been very impactful; my story resonates with the community and the kids. I was in their literal shoes and look at me now. It shows them you can still give back to community when you get older, it is very rewarding. I also was not a perfect student. I visited the principal’s office, and administration back then helped me learn that it is okay to take risks and chances, but to then make better choices the next time.”
Astudillo prides himself in being able to be a role model for young boys and those who look like him. “There were not a lot of male teachers or administration coming from my previous experiences, there were more males in high school administration and when I moved to the elementary level, I saw a direct need for male role model figures in the building to offer opportunities for kids who may not have a traditional role model as a male,” said Astudillo. “I am looking into boys mentoring groups, taking kids to local colleges and showing them what’s possible, bringing in community speakers, and just being able to see them on a daily basis. I am always standing at the school front doors in the morning and afternoon, I stop by lunch, I pop in classrooms. They can see someone who looks like them and went through something they have gone through.”
The new principal has made sure to introduce himself to every classroom in the school since school started, which has led to many heartwarming reactions from students about his story. “I go in and say hi, I drop the line, but they know it by now, that I sat in those exact chairs, and hands shoot right up,” Astudillo said. “They say things like ‘My mom or my dad went to this school,’ or ‘My parents were from this community,’ and that is so special, there is so much heritage and tradition here, people stay around.”
While kids love to hear about Astudillo’s time growing up in the community and how he has come full circle at the school- there is one question which he feels the students can wait to hear an answer for. “Some kids ask what might have been the reason why I was in the principal’s office when I was a student. But I will save those stories for later. What matters is I figured it out, adults and teachers gave me redirection.”