Jesús Rodríguez might have taken a totally different path in life had it not been for a couple of key mentors early on.
Now, the new Roaring Fork Schools superintendent hopes to use his own experiences to help influence students and fellow educators here in the lower Roaring Fork Valley.
“Right now, I just want to take time to listen and learn,” he said Tuesday as he settled into his second week on the job.
Part of that is listening not only to teachers and staff and community members but to students in the district. The Roaring Fork District includes schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt.
“They have great insights and perspectives and a way of showing me things that are meaningful and important to them,” Rodrîguez said, referring to visits he had with high school students in April while interviewing for the job.
“I made a commitment that I want to continue those kinds of conversations,” he said, adding that may include the formation of a student advisory council within the district.
It’s a personal approach that ties back to his own experiences as a student.
Rodrîguez, 36, grew up in the small town of Lochbuie, northeast of Denver next to Brighton.
One of those early mentors he mentions is a teacher he met in the eighth grade in Brighton, David Layne.
“He was a great teacher, but he was also great at building relationships,” Rodríguez said. “He was that person in my life at the time who knew me and cared about me as a human being, and cared about my wellness, and my education and my future.”
They stayed close through Rodríguez’s high school years, and when graduation time came around it was Layne who asked very pointedly, “What are you going to do next?” and “Have you thought about college?”
Rodríguez admitted he hadn’t given it much thought, so Layne offered to drive him to Ames Community College in Fort Lupton, where he ultimately began his career journey.
“While I was there, he saw that I qualified for a scholarship and helped with that,” he said. “I knew then how much he had really dramatically impacted my life.
“I literally would not be sitting here with you today if it weren’t for him picking me up that morning,” Rodrîguez said.
Rodríguez went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in elementary education and Spanish from the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, followed by a master’s in educational equity and cultural diversity from the University of Colorado-Boulder, and a doctorate in education leadership and policy studies from the University of Denver.
Rodríguez’s latter studies were directed in part by one of his instructors at Ames, Leonard Baca, who founded the BUENO Center for Multicultural Education at CU-Boulder.
Baca had his doctorate, which inspired Rodríguez to consider going on to earn a doctorate degree himself, so that he could one day become a schools superintendent.
“I saw myself in him and thought I could do that, too,” he said.
“And, because my name is Jesús, when I got that doctorate, I figured my students could call me ‘Dr. ‘Sús,’” he joked, referencing the famed children’s book author, Dr. Seuss.
After several years of teaching and serving as a school principal while advancing his studies, Rodríguez took a brief sidetrack in 2020-21 when he was named executive director of the BUENO Center at CU — at Baca’s encouragement.
“I enjoyed being there, and I learned so much,” he said. “We supported a lot of grants across the state for kids like myself at the time, fresh out of high school who wanted to go to college to be an educator. That gave me a lot of perspective in terms of what college readiness really means.”
Wanting to return to preK-12th grade education, though, he was lured to take a deputy chief academic officer position in the Dallas Independent School District by former Denver Public Schools chief Susana Cordova (now deputy superintendent in Dallas).
“We really enjoyed our time in Dallas,” Rodríguez said of his and his wife, Elle, and toddler son, Cosme’s, brief stint in Texas.
“We loved our neighborhood and loved our community and loved our home, and my son was in an awesome Spanish immersion (preschool),” he said.
But the Roaring Fork superintendent position came open following a family emergency that prompted them to want to get back to Colorado, and closer to family, he said.
Elle has family in the Roaring Fork Valley, and both of their parents are still in the Denver area. So when he got the offer, the quick return back home made a lot of sense, Rodríguez said. Elle works from home for a graduate school of education program based in New York.
Restorative teaching moments
Aside from his mentor influences, Rodríguez points to a couple of negative experiences in elementary and middle that also shaped his life as an educator.
The first was in the fifth grade when he got called into the principal’s office, and was ultimately suspended over what he said was a big misunderstanding.
A gifted student taking advanced academic classes, Rodríguez said he was also the only student of color who was bilingual in that program.
One day, by pure chance, he and two of his Hispanic friends showed up at school with the same color shirts on.
“And so we were accused of being gang-affiliated,” he said. “We were just three Latino kids who, out of happenstance, were wearing the same color clothes that day. But I didn’t have the language skills to articulate that to my principal and say, ‘Oh, this is just a misunderstanding.’”
So he took his punishment and used that and another incident a few years later as a learning experience.
The second one involved an occasion in middle school when he was walking down the hallway between classes with his headphones on, listening to music on his Walkman, which wasn’t permitted.
A teacher caught him and told him to hand over the device, but he instead took it off and put it in his backpack and proceeded on his way.
“The teacher, of course, engaged in this power struggle with me and said, ‘No, give them here’ … and, another long story short, he ended up being suspended again.
“To me, it was an easy fix. I’ll just take them off and put them in my backpack,” he said. “And for him, the easy fix was, ‘I’ll take them from you.’”
He looks back on that experience today from the perspective of being a big believer in restorative justice — where the parties in a conflict admit to each other how they believe they were both wrong and wronged, and work to bury the hatchet.
“I’m a huge believer in restorative practices and very anti-punitive discipline when that’s not the right approach to a situation,” Rodríguez said. “In my situation, even though I wasn’t in the mood, I could have said, ‘you know, I know I wasn’t supposed to have (the headphones) out, I’m sorry, let’s make it right.’”
He believes his life story can also be beneficial in a school district where the student population is approaching 60% Hispanic.
“If some of these students’ experiences are anything like mine when I was growing up, they probably haven’t had the opportunity to see someone like them who has a bachelor’s degree, or a master’s degree, or certainly not a doctorate degree,” Rodríguez said. “From my own experience, just meeting Dr. Baca inspired me to be able to someday get my doctorate, and so I hope to be able to do that, as well.”
Rolling up the sleeves
While Rodríguez said he remains in the “listening and learning” stage of his first superintendent’s job, he’s also ready to hit the ground running as the successor to longtime former RFSD Superintendent Rob Stein, who stepped down after the 2021-22 school year.
This week, he has tele-conferences with both Gov. Jared Polis and U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., to talk about education issues on a broader scale, and some of the challenges for rural resort school districts like RFSD.
“Top of mind is how we can recruit and retain talent here in the Roaring Fork School District,” Rodríguez said. “Our district has done a good job of making this a great place to work, but we still have work to do.”
Easing the transition for student teachers is also something the area schools could improve in, he said. Now that Colorado Mountain College offers bachelor’s degrees in teaching, Rodríguez said there could be opportunities for more partnerships with higher education. That could include concurrent coursework for high school students who are interested in entering the teaching field, he said.