Catherine Rodriguez previously served as assistant head of school at Sarasota Military Academy.
After several years of searching for a campus, a bilingual charter school for students entering K-5 will open this fall and it now has its first principal.
Catherine Rodriguez, previously the assistant head of school at Sarasota Military Academy, is Dreamers Academy’s first principal. She also founded a consultancy on dual-language education called Biliteracy Focused Education.
Rodriguez holds a bachelor’s degree from University of Puerto Rico, a master’s degree in clinical health psychology and counseling from Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and a doctorate in education leadership and innovation in higher education from Wilmington University.
The Observer sat down with Rodriguez during her first weeks on the job to discuss the role and her goals for the school’s first year.
What has prepared you for this role?
What prepared me the most was my own personal experience of my mom taking me to Puerto Rico in second grade and putting me into a classroom. I was in total shock, because I was totally immersed in a classroom, but I did not understand Spanish.
But I can tell you that I learned Spanish, and the teacher I had to this day is still a part of my family because she took the time to teach me how to read Spanish and by fifth or sixth grade, I was fully bilingual. But that gave me the student perspective, the struggles, the challenges, the good things and bad things.
Your degree is in counseling, how did you get into education?
I became a student counselor but I wasn’t satisfied professionally so I switched to teaching a Spanish class because I had a friend tell me it would be good for me, so I thought I’d try it. I came home from my first day teaching and I told my husband, “This is what I’m meant to do.”
From there, I became very involved with my students. I’m a hands-on teacher and I started different clubs and started building a community. It made a different side of my passion come to light, and I just saw the growth in myself. I have a passion that drives me and I don’t see it as work.
How does it feel to be chosen to be the first leader of the first bilingual school in the county?
I didn’t think I was going to be chosen to be honest with you because I was ready to stay at SMA for years to come, so to be chosen, it’s like an answered prayer in a way because I didn’t see it coming.
It’s a great honor and a great responsibility because before I was working under other leadership and making sure I did the work to make them shine, but being chosen to lead, I’m now the face and that’s a huge responsibility. But I take it with humility and I’m going to give it my very best.
What are your goals for the first year?
Obviously we have our big goals and our small goals, so immediately we are working on the hiring process. But my biggest goal for the school year and biggest goal as an administrator is to create a good school climate and culture. I want to build a good foundation. I want to build a culture that is inclusive, that is caring, that is safe for everybody.
My second big goal is a data-driven culture to drive instruction and to see what our kids’ growth is over time and to maximize it in a way that is effective in bringing that achievement up.
How will this school help Spanish-speaking families in ways that traditional public schools cannot?
Because it’s a bilingual school, we’ll be serving families that are bilingual or monolingual in Spanish so we need to connect with them. I would like to have a family resource center in the school that has materials in English and Spanish.
I give out my cell phone because for so many families it’s a personal touch for them to know they can call me and I’m there to answer their questions in a language that they need to hear it in.
We want to bring the parents in and we want to make sure that we deliver opportunities to volunteer, be hands-on and feel welcomed. I’m all for engagement, but I’d like all our families, especially our Spanish-speaking families, to feel a connection to our school because we want them to be successful in this new environment.
What are you most looking forward to in the year to come?
I mean, it’s got to be the little kids’ faces as they walk in. I can just imagine our staff giving them a, “Bienvenida” and high fives. I’m sure the first day will be nerve-wracking but I think it’s so exciting to have kids on campus to make memories and learn another language together.
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