leadership lessons

In the district with the most ‘Renewal’ schools, a leader sets out to fix them

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
District 9 Superintendent Leticia Rodriguez-Rosario (center) with two of her former assistant principals who are now her deputies: Director of School Renewal Jasmin Varela (left) and Principal Leadership Facilitator Claudy Makelele.

One of New York City’s toughest jobs belongs to Leticia Rodriguez-Rosario.

As superintendent of District 9 in the southwest Bronx, she oversees an area with more students than the city of Buffalo, which sits within the country’s poorest congressional district.

A fifth of those students have disabilities, about a quarter are still learning English, and their state test scores rank among the city’s lowest. And when the education department rounded up 94 of the city’s most troubled schools last year to participate in a high-profile improvement program, eight fell within Rodriguez-Rosario’s purview — the most of any superintendent.

But rather than despair, the Bronx native and former District 9 principal says she celebrated the news. The new “Renewal” program meant extra resources and attention for those schools, while a recent school-system restructuring meant more authority for her as superintendent to set those schools on a different path.

“This was an opportunity,” said Rodriguez-Rosario, who is responsible for the district’s 51 elementary and middle schools, “an opening of doors for our work.”

The former principal of P.S./I.S. 218, a dual-language school where classes are taught in both English and Spanish, Rodriguez-Rosario was one of several superintendents whom Chancellor Carmen Fariña installed last year in an effort to fill those positions with seasoned educators. Rodriguez-Rosario sustained her educator’s instincts in her new role: She moved the district office into an elementary school building, and hired two of her former assistant principals as deputies.

Fariña had instructed her district chiefs to form relationships with local parents and to earn their subordinates’ trust. Rodriguez-Rosario quickly set out to do both.

Superintendent Rodriguez-Rosario led District 9 teachers in a cheer during a mentor-training session in March.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Rodriguez-Rosario led District 9 teachers in a cheer during a mentor-training session in March.

In her first week on the job, she met with members of a parent-advocacy group that has spent the past 20 years agitating for improvements to District 9’s schools through a series of rallies, public forums, and detailed reports. Later, she gathered together the district’s principals and urged them to participate in the parent group’s latest initiative, a program to train successful teachers how to mentor less-experienced colleagues. An organizer with the group, the New Settlement Parent Action Committee, said the superintendent has been remarkably accessible, sometimes sending the organizer text messages late into the night.

That is a departure from some past superintendents who viewed the group more as an adversary than a partner, said group member Angel Martinez.

“I have to say, it’s a weird feeling: She is more at the table than I have ever seen from our district office before,” said Martinez, whose daughter attends the district’s P.S. 294. “We were always so used to having a fight instead of a conversation.”

Rodriguez-Rosario also began regularly visiting schools, meeting with everyone from principals and teachers to custodians and the staffers who handle parent concerns, she said. In those encounters, her style is more coach than commander. At one of the mentor-training sessions this spring, she led a huddle of teachers in a cheer: “Go District 9!”

“She’s really described us as a team,” said Principal Edgar Lin of the Renewal school J.H.S. 22, “with her being a part of that team, and we as a team winning or losing together.”

Another aim of hers and Fariña is to get educators to trade ideas and troubleshoot problems together.

She paired each principal with colleagues from two other schools and had them meet occasionally, in a scaled-down version of the chancellor’s signature Learning Partners program. During one session, she asked the trios to brainstorm ways to “brand” their schools by offering robust art or science programs or classes related to particular careers — one solution she sees to the challenge of retaining students in a low-performing district where an estimated 4,300 students applied for just over 800 charter school seats last year.

“That’s what charter schools go on: They have these themes and people buy into them,” Rodriguez-Rosario said. “So we’re learning, we’re getting smarter.”

A whiteboard in Rodriguez-Rosario's office with plans for an intricate monitoring protocol for Renewal schools this year.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A whiteboard in Rodriguez-Rosario’s office with plans for an intricate monitoring protocol for Renewal schools this year.

She also ordered the eight Renewal principals to gather twice a month to discuss common challenges and sent them to visit higher-performing schools in the district. When the schools had to craft state-mandated improvement plans this year, she hosted a joint planning session with teams from each school, her district staff, and city and state education officials — a far cry from the process at many schools, where principals write the bulk of those plans alone in their offices.

Now that each Renewal school has an improvement plan, Rodriguez-Rosario said the second year of the three-year program be focused on bringing them to life.

To make sure that happens, she has devised an intricate monitoring system. Her staff will periodically review each school’s plan with the principal, tour the school to see how it’s being enacted, then come up with a handful of recommendations. Four weeks later, the team will return to check whether the school acted on that feedback. If the school is falling short, Rodriguez-Rosario said the relationships she has developed with her principals will allow for frank conversations.

“I’m at the point now where I can say to a principal, ‘You’ve been saying that twice now, stop talking, and I want to see that,’” she said.

So far, she said the Renewal principals have met her expectations. But if they start to stumble, she said she will talk to them about whether they are up to grueling task of turning around a troubled school.

“They understand that there is an urgency, that this is non-negotiable.” she said. “And they understand that if they can’t cut the work, then that conversation will be had.”

Jasmin Varela, a former principal who began her leadership career as an assistant principal under Rodriguez-Rosario, now works for her former boss again as District 9’s Renewal school supervisor. (Because the district has so many of those schools, the city is bringing in another person next month to share her duties.) Varela said that if her team’s tactics can help rehabilitate those schools, then they could ripple out and spur similar changes in other schools.

“Then it spreads beyond Renewal,” she said. “It’s going to reform the entire district.”

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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