In the spotlight

Q&A with the NYC kid who caught Obama's attention

Estevin Rodriguez in Washington, D.C. (Credit: NYC Outward Bound)

Estiven Rodriguez and his story of perseverance through the New York City school system is a hot commodity these days. Even powerful politicians are waiting for a chance to meet with him.

The Dominican-born senior’s sudden rise to fame began less than two weeks ago, but it culminated last night when President Barack Obama mentioned him in his State of the Union speech. Following the speech, U.S. Representative Charles Rangel hung around for 30 minutes just to say hello.

“I was like ‘oh my god, you do not have to wait for me ever again,'” Rodriguez, still seemingly in awe over the national attention, said of the Rangel encounter during a phone interview this morning from his hotel in Washington, D.C.

In his speech, Obama credited dedicated teachers and an innovative mentoring program at Rodriguez’s school, Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, to highlight how it was possible to help students reach college.

But Rodriguez was also aided by a life-changing sacrifice by his parents, who left a comfortable existence in the Dominican Republic to seek a better future for their two sons. Rodriguez had a few minutes to talk about his high-profile visit to Washington, D.C. and gives his recipe for success as a Spanish-speaking kid who couldn’t understand his teachers on his first day of school.

[Ed:The interview has been edited and condensed for brevity]

The biggest surprise about being mentioned in the State of the Union address… 

As soon as [Obama] mentions your name, the attention in the room is, like — you can not describe it. It is incredible. Every camera turns to you. Every person looks at you. As soon as he mentions your name, you can not describe it. It’s awesome. Everything stops.

What Obama said to him…

He told me how proud he was that I made it and just to keep working hard, because the harder work is ahead of me. I still have to go to college. High school is just a first step. [Rodriguez is attending Dickinson College on a full scholarship]

Why he left the Dominican Republic…

My family really wanted to focus on education. They wanted a better educational opportunity. We lived pretty fine in the Dominican Republic, but they just wanted a better opportunity and they were willing to sacrifice. My dad was willing to sacrifice the job he had over there to come over here.

The hardest part about moving to the U.S….

I remember my first day in sixth grade, I was in social studies class. My teacher was Ms. Aberger. She was teaching the class and going through the agenda.

The first thing I thought was, ‘I don’t understand anything, but okay.’ Then 10 minutes passed: ‘Okay, I’m getting a little nervous.’ Then the class goes on and I think, ‘well, maybe the next class is going to be Spanish.’ The next class was not Spanish.

By the third or fourth class, I was completely shocked. I was, like, really nervous. I felt like I was out of place. To be honest, that’s the worst feeling. That you’re out of place, like you don’t belong because you don’t understand what’s going on.

What changed…

I had two choices. I was either going to complain about it or it was…the way out: learning English, putting in 120 percent and just focusing on that.

So I decided that if my family is working so hard just to be here, like, why can’t I do this? This should be easy for me. If I have to watch TV in English, if I have to go to my aunt’s house, who’s a teacher, for help, I’m going to go. If I have to stay after school until four — or some teachers even met with me an hour before school started —  I was just going to do whatever it took to succeed.

What role his school played in his success…

We have teachers who are committed to help you at any cost. They’re there every single day and they’re available, even after school. I remember someone stayed with me until 7pm just to help me. That support group is really important, I think, especially when you’re an English language learner.

What his principal, Brett Kimmel, says…

I think it can’t be underestimated enough that a student comes from a wonderful family. And his mom, his dad, have spread educational values for the entire family. And the belief that if you work hard, if you do your school work, education is going to be the key that’s going to lead to a wonderful future. That’s why his family came from the Dominican Republic, where they were living a comfortable and successful life, to this country, because they knew that essentially it would mean a brighter future for their children.

He’s in a wonderful school with amazing teachers who will do anything for him, but at the end of the day he has to take advantage of those opportunities. And I give him a ton of credit because he’s done that. He’s realized that he’s got to work hard, he has to persevere and he has to take advantage and make the most of every moment.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”