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.
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.”
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.”