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‘I was a mischievous kid’: New RFSD superintendent tells of early obstacles and influence of life-changing teachers

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Roaring Fork School District
Jesus Rodriguez, center left, visits the Roaring Fork High School library in April to connect with students and teachers. The visit was part of his interview process to become the next superintendent of the Roaring Fork School District. He begins July 1.

In May, the Roaring Fork School District Board of Education named Jesus Rodriguez its new superintendent.

Rob Stein, who was in the role for nine years, had announced his retirement in January.

Rodriguez’s parents grew up in Mexico and moved to the United States to give their children more educational opportunities. He was in his school’s gifted-and-talented program by the time he reached fifth grade.

But in that same year, Rodriguez was suspended after his principal wrongly accused him of being gang-affiliated.

“I, as a fifth grader, didn’t have the language to articulate that she was wrong,” Rodriguez said. “I couldn’t advocate for myself.”

After multiple suspensions kept him away from school, he stopped submitting his work on time or showing up for all of his tests. As a result, Rodriguez had to attend summer school to earn enough credits to graduate.

He did the extra work and graduated on time with the help of an invested school counselor, but he still needed support to apply for college. Rodriguez said one of his eighth-grade teachers attended his graduation ceremony and helped him with his applications.

“When I say that I believe teachers transform lives, it’s because a teacher transformed mine,” he said.

Rodriguez says he wants to have that kind of impact on a larger scale.

Plans for the Roaring Fork School District

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Roaring Fork School District
Jesus Rodriguez was named the next superintendent of the Roaring Fork School District in May and begins work July 1. Rodriguez received a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and Spanish from the University of Northern Colorado, a master's degree in educational equity and cultural diversity from the University of Colorado Boulder, and a doctorate in education from the University of Denver.

Rodriguez said his initial plan for the district is simple. He wants to begin by listening and collecting feedback.

“I want to have an active student advisory council, but I also want to have an advisory council that’s made up of alumni,” he said. “And I want to learn from the diverse perspectives and experiences.”

Rodriguez plans to strengthen the partnership between the Roaring Fork School District and Colorado Mountain College. He believes students can graduate with more than a high school diploma. They can enroll in dual courses and earn college credits while still in high school.

“I believe our responsibility as a school district is to make sure that every single student is aware of those opportunities and that we create access ... and remove barriers that may exist,” Rodriguez said.

He believes in restorative-justice practices where mistakes are also seen as educational.

“Where students have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes that they’ve made, repair harm that they’ve caused, and really the opportunity to grow from something that otherwise might be a suspendible behavior,” he said.

Rodriguez recognizes that the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted in-person learning and may have exacerbated mental health issues across the county.

But his first priority is to listen to the Roaring Fork School District community, including parents, teachers and students. He wants to support them as they face new challenges.

Rodriguez comes to Colorado from his current job as the deputy chief academic officer in the Dallas Independent School District.

Aspen Public Radio spoke with Rodriguez about how he overcame early obstacles to soon hold one of the most influential positions in the Roaring Fork School District.

Listen to the story above.

Music in this story is from blue dot sessions.

Editor’s note: This story was produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps, which is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.