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New superintendent up for East Aurora challenge

Updated: March 7, 2014 1:47PM

AURORA — East Aurora School District’s new superintendent Jesse Rodriguez is no stranger to challenges.

He’s been overcoming obstacles since he left his home in Puerto Rico at age 14 and moved to Milwaukee, where he spoke no English.

Now 39, Rodriguez says it was the best decision his mother could have made, though at the time “there was a lot of tears and sadness.”

Rodriguez said the new neighborhood he lived in with his mother and brother was a tough one where drugs and gangs were prevalent. His mother worked two jobs to support the family.

“She always told us education was the only way to escape poverty,” said Rodriguez, who knew he wanted to be a teacher in high school. “She’d talk to us about her own experiences. Oftentimes she cited her own challenges in moving the family forward as a single mom earning minimum wage in Milwaukee where she didn’t speak any English.”

Rodriguez was in bilingual education for five years as he learned English, he said. He was part of a dual language program, which has the goal of helping children read, write and speak two languages at an academic level. East Aurora uses a transitional bilingual approach, in which the goal is to learn English while providing native language support.

The dual language program helped boost his self-esteem, Rodriguez said, as it treated his Spanish-language abilities and Puerto Rican culture as benefits, not deficits. He also was inspired by his sister, who was the first to graduate from college in his family and went on to become a teacher.

“I believe in bilingual education,” Rodriguez said. “I believe in providing all students with different forms of language. It’s a great gift, not only for me, but for all students in the Aurora school district.”

He said he hopes his bilingual abilities will help him connect with East Aurora parents in the language they understand, as well as find new ways to improve bilingual education.

“We need to rethink many things in order for us to enhance academic achievement,” he said. “Among those things is our approach to educating English-language learners.”

‘East Aurora needs me’

Before he accepted the district’s top post, Rodriguez said he did “extensive research” on East Aurora, from reading the state report card to following the news for almost a year.

He had seen openings at other nearby districts over the last two years — in Oswego 308, West Aurora and Indian Prairie 204 — but he set his sights on East Aurora.

Aurora’s history and the district’s demographics and location attracted him to the job, he said.

“The only one I considered was East Aurora because that’s where I need to be,” Rodriguez said. “I see that East Aurora needs me and I need East Aurora.”

Rodriguez is currently one of four regional superintendents at Milwaukee Public Schools, Wisconsin’s largest district. He oversees 31 schools on Milwaukee’s southwest side, where most of the district’s Latino population lives, he said.

In that job he oversees the schools and selects and evaluates principals. In the past, he served as a teacher, an assistant principal, a principal and vice president for education at La Causa, an organization that operates an MPS charter school focused on bilingual education.

Rodriguez said MPS has many of the same academic challenges facing East Aurora — last school year, MPS received the state’s lowest accountability score — but he’s confident he can use his past experience to draft action plans for improvement at East Aurora.

Rodriguez said in his MPS region he’s helped usher in several improvements, such as higher ACT scores and getting three schools to exceed academic expectations — up from none two years ago.

On Monday, School Board President Annette Johnson said Rodriguez had the best qualifications among the more than 70 applicants for the job, and that he was selected “after much deliberation and soul searching about the fundamental needs of our district.”

“It is with pride, it is with a humble condition that I accept the challenge, that I accept the opportunity to join all of you in taking East Aurora — a very good school district — to a great school district,” Rodriguez said at the meeting.

His appointment is contingent upon his obtaining the proper license and endorsement to be a superintendent in Illinois. He plans to work with the district during the transition period before he officially takes the reins this summer.

The current superintendent, Jerome Roberts, has a contract that expires at the end of June. He has led the district since 2006.

Rodriguez said his first order of business will be to make sure the public understands that the School Board and superintendent work together as one team, but have separate functions.

He said he will “embrace and respect” the School Board and that members will need to “respect and embrace my role as the executive of this school district.”

Since last year’s School Board elections, some have criticized Johnson for taking too large a role in the day-to-day operations of the district. Johnson has said she has been hands-on with several bids and contracts over the last year because of her accounting experience and because the district is in the process of transitioning to new business software.

Rodriguez said he plans to be a highly visible superintendent, both in schools and at community events.

He, his wife and three children are preparing for the move, he said. His wife, Elizabeth, is a middle school teacher in MPS and his three children, who are in fifth, seventh and 10th grades, also attend MPS.

Rodriguez hopes to be a unifier for the district.

“Even though I am Puerto Rican, many people think that I am Mexican,” he said. “And I’m fine with that — I love that. I grew up in a very heavy Mexican community. And being Puerto Rican will assist me in connecting with Latinos. At the end of the day, I am about everybody, regardless of ethnicity or country of origin.”

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