Jesse Rodriguez, the new superintendent of Proviso High School District 209, is confident that, under his leadership, Proviso East High School, along with the entire district, will be transformed.
A big part of his confidence stems from having lived a transformational life. “Until I was 14 years old,” he said, “I lived in extreme poverty with a single mom and a brother and a sister in the small town of Juana Diaz in Puerto Rico. When I was 14, my mother moved our family to a neighborhood in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which was challenged with drugs, gangs and violence. We were poor in Puerto Rico, and we were poor in Milwaukee. I spoke zero English. I was faced with learning a new language and a new culture.”
Two factors, however, prevented his environment from undermining his future. One was his mother, who worked two full-time jobs at $3.82/hour to pay the rent and put food on the table. His mother inculcated strong family values in her three children and modeled an ethic of hard work, particularly in education, which she emphasized as the way to get ahead.
A second factor was an excellent bi-lingual program in the Milwaukee public schools, which allowed Rodriguez to maintain his fluency in Spanish while becoming proficient in English. Those two forces enabled all three children to become professionals as adults.
A series of positions in education in the Milwaukee area; a master’s degree in administration; a PhD with an emphasis on leadership, learning, research and service; and a job as the regional superintendent for southwest Milwaukee public schools gave him the credentials to be hired as the D209 superintendent.
Rodriguez eagerly looks forward to being a transformative leader. He understands that the board and the communities that make up D209 are looking for change, and he also knows that what was successful in Milwaukee probably won’t work in this part of Chicago’s western suburbs. Therefore he is presently doing a lot of listening to stakeholders and staff.
He intends to meet with the residents of every village during the first year of his tenure in town hall-style meetings and “cafes,” the first taking place in Maywood on Sept. 22. One concern he already has following his first round of meetings with officials from the villages in the district is the almost sole focus on what is wrong with the high schools.
He acknowledges that Proviso East has its “challenges.”
“Proviso East has achievement levels,” he said, “that are unacceptable. Scores on assessments are very, very low.” But that is based, he added, more on perceptions of performance by students in the past and not necessarily what is happening right now.
Claudia Medina lives in Forest Park, is a D209 board member, and is impressed with Rodriguez’s leadership.
“Our needs at Proviso for improvement are high,” she said, “and he has impacted and improved school climate, increased student achievement goals, effected more involved stakeholders. He expects more rigorous, targeted instruction in Proviso that will bring our students up to their full potential.”
“I’ve been hearing the negative perceptions,” Rodriguez said, “but the transformation at Proviso East under Dr. [Patrick] Hardy, the school’s principal, suggests otherwise. The first days of this school year have been magical. We invite the community to see the type of work we are doing at Proviso East because it is changing in the right direction.”
Rodriguez brings a confident “we’ll show you” attitude to his work as a transformational leader. A change agent has to, by definition, bring about change, he noted. February 2017 is when he plans to present to the board a strategic plan that maps out in detail just how D209 will move into the future everyone seems to want. He cited the rating by Chicago Magazine of the Proviso Math and Science Academy as the number one high school in the Cook County suburbs as evidence of what can happen.
Ned Wagner, a Forest Park resident and D209 board member, said he can already see a difference at Proviso East High School after just one month of the new superintendent’s leadership.
“Dr. Rodriguez has given Dr. Hardy permission to be great,” he said, “and Hardy is following through with style and gusto.”
Rodriguez said the low scores at Proviso East are due to social as well as academic factors, which he called “realities of public education in an urban setting.” Proviso Township is clearly a more urban context for education than Winnetka, Arlington Heights, Glenview and Palatine, the suburbs with the next four top-ranked schools in Chicago Magazine’s ratings.
He emphasizes “attitude” in determining student achievement. In order to have a great high school, he said, sandwiched between academic and social factors, you must have perseverance and grit.
“Our staff is going to make sure students know they are important,” he said, taking a lesson from his own mother. “We will use our training and our love and compassion for children to make sure they are moving ahead academically.”
A relational approach to students, he said, is more effective than what he called “technical” solutions.
“We recognize that security and safety is a big issue in our high school,” he explained, “and if students are not behaving, there’s a tendency to want to apply technical solutions like bringing in more cameras and more police. What we need to do is address the root cause of the problem. We have cultural problems in this township. What we need to do is create a culture of respect, collaboration and trust.”
Rodriguez combines confidence and optimism with humility.
“I am not a long ranger,” he said. “I’ve always had retired principal and other mentors observing me and telling me the good, the bad and the ugly. Working with others as a team is something required of me to be successful. I’ve never done anything alone.”
Rodriguez’s style has apparently made a positive initial impression on the teachers at Proviso East.
Wagner observed, “The pride and energy at the District Institute Day [for teachers] was absolutely palpable. Teachers were coming up to me and thanking me and the board of education for hiring Rodriguez. His blend of determination, vision, clear communication, efficient organization, and personality make him a gifted leader.”
Medina looked at Rodriguez’s impact from a student’s point of view. She said a neighbor of hers, who is a freshman this year at Proviso East, told her, “Everybody warned me about going to the high school. I don’t know why everybody makes such a big deal about it. Proviso East High School is awesome. I really like it there. It’s nothing like what people told me.”
“That tells me,” said Medina, “the collaborative and transformative vision is being felt by the kids and that is what counts because when kids are happy, real positive change is [the result].”