Jake Castanza

Executive Director, Project First Rate
Alignment Rockford Operating Board Member
Alignment Rockford’s Pathways A-Team
Alignment Rockford's Career Awareness A-Team

EMITT College and Career Readiness Council Member


Bio and Professional Experience

I’m a Rockford native and I reside on the North End of Rockford, Illinois. In 2012, I returned home from Macomb, Illinois where I attended Western Illinois University.  In 2013, I began working at the YMCA of Rock River Valley as a Senior Director in Mission Advancement.  After departing from the Y in 2016, my next stop was at Project First Rate, this past June I was hired as the organization’s third Executive Director. In Spring of 2016, I enrolled at Purdue University in pursuit of a master’s degree in strategic communication and am set to earn my degree in Spring 2018.

I currently sit on the Board of Director at Blackhawk Learning Connection, Board of Director at Keep Northern Illinois Beautiful, United Way VRC Committee, and serves as a concerned citizen for Rockford Illinois. Previously, I campaigned for United Way’s annual fundraising and achieved 2014 Corporate Campaigner of the year for 500+ employees.

How did you end up getting involved with Alignment Rockford?

It’s a weird connection, in my first week at the YMCA my boss had assigned me to take on involvement with the Pathways team under Lauri Preece’s leadership.  After some exposure to AR, it wasn’t until 2016 and my role with Project First Rate when I had the opportunity to be “all in” for the team, of course I took the opportunity.  I now participate in Alignment Rockford’s Operating Board, a member of the Pathways Team, the Career Awareness Team, and I serve on the College and Career Academies of Rockford’s EMITT College and Career Readiness Council (CCRC.)


Can you share your experience and what the community might be able to expect out of Alignment Rockford this year?

AR’s Board retreat was a hopeful and inspirational experience.  I had the opportunity to work alongside our community’s stewards and leaders.  A common theme at this year’s retreat was to engage and educate our community on all the amazing things happening in Rockford’s schools. AR has done some great work, we have achieved national honors, other communities are looking at our model, and our school district has rifled in on making sure our students are prepared for the real world.  With our foundations strengthened, I see great success in on-boarding the community to achieve our goal.


Why is it important for you to be so involved and can you share some of the work being done in these areas?

There are a number of great things occurring at AR, but what I am most excited about is our community coming together to formulate the best outcomes for our students.  It is our goal to ensure our students are leaving 12th grade with either industry certifications or credits towards college, so that when they take that leap, they will be ahead of the game.  It’s so important to be involved, especially while our community is excited and is looking to change for the better.  We have the opportunity to shape our community for the years to come, it is time to step up!

In addition to your team/board memberships you also collaborate regularly with students and schools such as with East High School’s Construction classes helping to build out Shelter Care’s new offices and Jefferson High School’s Fitness Trail. Can you tell us a little more about your involvement in these efforts and perhaps a moment that sticks out for you?   

I can hardly take credit for what is happening with those projects.  I think what sticks out to me most about those projects was the fact that people in the community had needs and were just totally unaware of how to connect the resources or who to connect with to accomplish the goal.  My involvement is from afar, I just make sure my ears are open and I make sure to pass along information that people might be able to help with.  The construction industry deals with ALL industries so I have an opportunity to talk with a lot of people, and if there are opportunities to make our community better, especially with the help of RPS205 students, it only makes sense to speak up and try to align.


Clearly you know how to get involved with the progress being made in our schools. Do you have any advice for those community members who want to get involved but don’t know how or are hesitant because they have not been in a school setting for quite some time? 

Open your eyes, ears, and hearts.  We need to be aware of what is going on in our community, and more particularly in our schools.  No matter our age, our level of schooling or what we do for a living, we all have perspective that is valuable to shaping our community.  AR does an awesome job at connecting with us through multiple platforms, but an easy way to get involved is to look for opportunities to connect your expertise to the outcome of a student’s academic and work career.