‘I wanted that feeling forever’: Beaufort Co.’s new superintendent talks priorities

Since starting as the new Beaufort County School District superintendent Monday, Frank Rodriguez has already turned over a few new leaves in the district’s front office.

According to district spokesperson Jim Foster, Rodriguez is the first Beaufort County superintendent fluent in Spanish; he’s also the first in recent memory to have children (a fifth-grader and ninth-grader) who will attend Beaufort County’s public schools.

In this same spirit, Rodriguez says he and the district, which in recent years has suffered a loss of public trust, are ready to turn to “a new page” altogether.

Primary among the challenges Rodriguez faces in the coming months is rallying enough voter support for a $345 million school bond referendum this fall that would, in part, help alleviate overcrowding at some county schools, but comes amid an FBI investigation related to school construction and the previous superintendent.

Rodriguez will also be tasked with finding solutions to reduce high turnover rates among teachers and support staff and to narrow the achievement gap.

The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette spoke Wednesday with Rodriguez about his career as an educator and his plans for the district.

Q: You kicked off your first day by visiting summer programs at local schools. What’s your first week been like?

A: It really started off my week in the right way. I’ve gotten the chance to meet some principals and talk to teachers, interact with kids and talk to kids. That’s where the rubber meets the road. From there, I’m getting the chance to work with and catch up with our staff here, seeing how we’re supporting schools and their work.

Q: What are your first priorities for the summer?

A: One of the things that’s really important to me is to get out there and talk to the community. I want to hear from our parents, from our community, from our teachers and administrators what’s going well in Beaufort schools. What are they most proud of in Beaufort County schools? Where do they see areas where we can get better?

All of that’s important to me, because hearing from them and our staff allows me to make better decisions around where we’re going to prioritize and where we’re going to push our work to improve student achievement.

Q: Where does your love of education come from?

A: My family came from Cuba in the late 1950s, early 1960s. And my grandfather had a difficult decision to make: to pick up your family and move for greater opportunities and leave everything you know behind. And he made that decision because he knew it would provide opportunities for his children.

My grandfather used to be on my brother and me all the time, saying “Are you getting a good education? Are you doing your part? Are you working hard? Because that’s the one thing nobody can take away from you.”

What got me into education was that when I finished high school, I started coaching soccer. I loved the feeling that I had when I would teach kids something in practice, and then they’d go out in the game and execute it. I loved it.

I knew I wanted that feeling forever. I know not many people love social studies, but I loved social studies and always have. That was where I wanted to teach.

What drives me every day is, as my grandpa told me, to make sure that the kids I serve get that one thing that nobody can ever take away from them, and that’s a great education.

Q: Do you see previous distrust of the superintendent and school board as a hindrance?

A: One of my very early goals is to get in front of the community and talk to them about the things that I shared with you. I think that’s an important piece to building trust.

I think the other piece is as I’ve been around talking in the last couple of weeks with people, what I’m hearing is that they’re ready to move forward. We’ve got a new board, and we have a new superintendent — let’s turn the page and move forward.

Q: What’s your plan for addressing the proposed referendum in your first few months here?

A: I think it’s really about educating the community about the referendum. I think it’s really important that there was a group made of community members that participated early on and helped assess and design some of those needs.

Obviously there are needs that the system has. The impact is that it improves the environment that our students learn in. It improves the environments that our teachers teach in, so we can provide our children here in the community with the best education possible. I think there’s tremendous value in that.

Q: One of the biggest issues in this community is overcrowding at schools, particularly South of the Broad. What are your plans to address that?

A: That’s one of those things I’m learning more about. I’ve read a lot about it. I’m working with our staff here to get more information on what current plan we have in place in dealing with that. That’s something I’d love to talk to you more about when we flesh that out a little bit.

Q: There’s also tremendous socioeconomic diversity in the county. What are the challenges and pros of working with a community with so many different needs?

A: The diversity that exists is a lot like the real world. I think the important piece as we work towards closing achievement gaps is that we’re clear on what the specific needs are, that we’re delivering a standards-based education that helps us close those gaps.

What’s important about closing achievement gaps is that we want all students to grow. We know some have to accelerate that a little bit, and we have to identify what supports are critical in helping them close those gaps. That’s where we need to be strategic about our work. (Achievement gaps) certainly existed where I’m coming from. Those aren’t gaps that close overnight, it’s a long process.

The other thing that’s important is how we’re able to tap into and utilize a lot of other resources that are out in the community and aren’t necessarily in the system, like retired teachers -- how are we engaging them and seeing if they’re interested in volunteering to support our work in classrooms? Those are groups I plan to identify and connect with.

Q: The school budget process was a bit bumpy this year. What can the school district do in the future to make that smoother?

A: One of the things I think is important is that we continue our communication and collaboration with county council through that process.

Obviously we’re pleased with the action that the county council took, and I think continuing to collaborate and work together helps inform each of us a little more.

Q: There’s a lot of citizen activism and public comments here. How do you plan on engaging with outspoken critics and advocates in the community?

A: I think the listening and learning tour is an opportunity for me to engage with all members of the community. It’s good to hear what’s on their mind, and hopefully we agree more often than we don’t.

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