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.

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.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.