By Janene Holzberg
9:25 AM EST, December 12, 2011
The appeal of Howard County's vaunted public school system, according to David Rodriguez, can be explained by borrowing the famous line from "A Field of Dreams," the 1989 film about an Iowa farmer who erects a baseball diamond in his cornfield.
Expanding on "if you build it, they will come," Rodriguez says the county has built a safe environment that attracts families with high academic goals for their children, and it has sustained this highly regarded reputation over the years.
But as a first-generation American born to Puerto Rican immigrants, Rodriguez is also well-equipped to see another side of the county's educational profile: Hispanic students aren't faring as well as they should be when compared with their peers.
"We need to peel back the onion a little bit and look deeper," said the board member of Conexiones, an advocacy group for Hispanic students.
Rodriguez, 53, joined the board in 2007 after meeting current president Feli Sola-Carter at a Columbia Hispanic fair. The organization was co-founded in 2000 by Murray Simon, a lifelong educator, and the Rev. Walter Rodriguez, who wanted to find ways to slow down the school dropout rate of Hispanic students.
"I was impressed by how the organization was founded and by its mission," said David Rodriguez, a sales manager for Kraft Foods and a married father of two children enrolled in county schools.
As past chairman of the awards committee, Rodriguez has been working to make a difference in the recognition of successful Hispanic students, since "raising the bar for Hispanics will clearly help the county overall."
And now, as a senior adviser and head of advocacy, he will work with the school system to achieve shared goals.
Conexiones continues to develop strategies for lowering the dropout rate, he said. Members are focusing on what makes a student disengage, since "disengagement has been brewing for a while before students make that decision" to abandon their public school education, Rodriguez said.
The nonprofit organization wants to assess risk factors specific to Howard County in order to zero in on the opportunities that would be most helpful to endangered students.
Some of the possible factors for disengagement are boredom, socioeconomic challenges and lack of creativity in the classroom.
"We need to never get comfortable and push harder to be innovative in teaching this generation and the next," he said.
Rodriguez, who moved from Illinois to Columbia 11 years ago with his wife, Melissa, and their two children, was raised in the South Bronx area of New York.
To give Jason, 17, and Alison, 13, a better sense of his roots and an even greater appreciation for their own community, he recently took his kids to visit the neighborhood where he grew up.
"I pointed out the 20-story projects in the inner city and how people are just hanging around on street corners," he said. "This opened their eyes so they know more (about the world) than they did before."
Rodriguez, who was the oldest of three siblings growing up, also impresses upon his children the importance of a supportive family.
"My dad always told us kids, 'I am the proudest father, and I always hold my head high,'" he recalled. "That made a difference."
Rodriguez is "a man of many gifts, and someone who is extraordinarily generous about sharing those gifts with the community," said Sola-Carter, who became president of Conexiones in 2007.
"David has a powerful story to tell about his rise from humble origins to his position as a corporate executive, and he is a powerful speaker," she said.
"But the best thing about him is that he not only says the right things to our students, he lives what he talks about," she said. "It's important for the community to realize that there are talented Hispanics making a difference here."
An alumnus of Colgate University in New York, where he was involved in the Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring program, Rodriguez served as a Marine Corps infantry officer after graduation and was promoted to captain during his six years of service. For the last 12 years, he has worked with Junior Achievement, an organization that helps students prepare for life.
Rodriguez refers to the message of another film, 2010's "Waiting for Superman," when he says that the educational system "could fall apart without vigilance."
"America needs creative ways to teach and to motivate our faculty and staff" in order to address the film's premise that the nation's educational system is in crisis, he said. In spite of the well-respected reputation of the Howard County school system, there is no room for complacency on anyone's part, he adds.
"The collaboration is already there," he said, noting he serves on two school system advisory committees. "Bringing different perspectives, experiences and insights into the fold is all we're trying to do."
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