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.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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

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