Ventura Rodriguez, Director, Office of Strategic Transformation, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
by Matthew Presser, Ed.L.D. candidate
July 19, 2017
Twenty years ago, Ventura Rodriguez, Ed.L.D.’15, was looking for a school for his younger sister. After signing her up at a new San Francisco charter high school, he also signed up himself: as the school’s founding Spanish teacher.
So when Rodriguez talks about his commitment to ensuring that every Massachusetts school is good enough that he would feel comfortable sending one of his own family members, he speaks from experience.
“I wanted to build the best kind of school for my sister and for all of her friends,” said Rodriguez, who moved with his family to San Francisco from Panama when he was six. “This work has always been very personal; it wasn’t just theory.”
Now, as the director of the Office of Strategic Transformation for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Rodriguez creates systems to ensure that each of the 22,000 students in the districts and schools under state receivership that he oversees attend schools that are similarly focused on one student at a time.
Matt Presser: What is the biggest lesson you learned since you started your career in education 20 years ago?
Ventura Rodriguez: This last 20 years has convinced me that what we’re trying to do through our work in education is not just create good schools, but to help shape the world we want to see. We do that by creating schools that educate children so that they are able to fully exercise their freedom to choose what they want to do with their lives. At the same time, we have to pay attention to systems, be it through state education agencies or more broadly, that inform the context in which our children live. I see it all as much more interrelated than I did 20 years ago.
MP: And what about from your experience as the founding principal of a charter school in Harlem that is still going strong and, in fact, won recognition as a National School of Character last year?
VR: I look back at that experience as an incredible one. It wasn’t perfect, far from it. I’m proud that they’ve continued the work and are sticking pretty closely to the values that we established together at the start of the school. We were always trying to build a charter school that focused on strong academics and creating a space where students felt respected and recognized for who they are as individuals.
MP: What questions did you have as you left that experience and began thinking more intentionally about how you could affect on a broader scale?
VR: After I helped to start a couple of charter schools, I reached a point where I started feeling like the charter path, while important, was such a small part of the overall education sector. Could we truly achieve the type of broad change that we need in our education system simply by focusing on charter schools? I also started wondering if some of the practices that we employed at our school and other charter schools could be replicated to support more students in a more traditional district setting.
MP: Do you feel you now have an answer to that question?
VR: What I, at the time, may have interpreted as elements of charter schools are really elements of high-functioning, healthy schools. Overall, I think outcomes can be achieved in both kinds of settings, charter or traditional district schools. I don’t care as much about the type of school it is, as long as it provides the conditions to deliver on the outcomes that we need for kids.
MP: Your current work involves managing the districts that are under state receivership. One of those districts, Lawrence, has been called a national model for the approach to intervention undertaken there. What lessons have you learned from there to apply to other districts under receivership like Holyoke and Southbridge?
VR: Lawrence Public Schools receiver Jeff Riley and his team get all of the credit for the work in Lawrence. When I joined the department, my team and I utilized a lot of lessons learned from Lawrence to inform our design of turnaround efforts in Holyoke and Southbridge. In turnaround, people often expect mass firing of teachers. Part of what was powerful in Lawrence was intentionally naming up front that we know that there is a lot of talent in Lawrence. The work was focused on removing the barriers and impediments in place for teachers to educate kids. Superintendent Riley’s approach was very much around empowering schools and school-based teams to make decisions that best allow them to meet outcomes for kids. Five years in, the result in Lawrence has been a significant increase in math and literacy test scores, increased graduation rate, and a historically low dropout rate. This notion of leveraging the talent already in the school system and empowering school teams to make decisions about how best to educate their students are at the heart of our district receivership work across the state.
MP: How do you marry what you loved about your early experience working close to the ground with this work where you’re further removed from students and families?
VR: I’ve led a lot of community engagement work in Holyoke and Southbridge. I’m literally meeting with families and kids and hearing from them what’s working and what’s not. That’s what’s motivating me. It’s really going back to things rooted in meeting the needs of the actual kids and families that I’m serving. As a Latino man, I also feel strong motivation because the districts where I work are ones that have, historically, failed to serve their students, many of whom are students of color. I am motivated to break this cycle and to provide more kids an opportunity to truly have choices about college and career.
MP: Speaking of kids and families, you have three young kids who will go to Massachusetts schools and who even walked across the stage with you at your Harvard graduation. How does having your own kids impact the work you do for other kids in the state?
VR: At the end of the day, this education work is about freedom. Already, because of my parents’ decision to move to this country and the many opportunities I have had extended to me, my kids have access to learning and opportunities that are placing them on a trajectory to have the freedom to choose how they want to spend their lives. I do not take the opportunities my children have for granted. I know that not all kids have the same opportunities. My motivation to work to improve public education is rooted in a desire to ensure that more and more kids have access to the opportunities they need. Having my own kids makes the work I do for all kids so personal.