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NEW SUPERINTENDENT SEES POTENTIAL FOR EXCELLENCE

Months before he was named superintendent of the Beaufort County School District — even before he applied for the job — Frank Rodriguez spent four days scoping out the Lowcountry.

He traveled throughout the county, frequenting all the places where ordinary folks might be found. Grocery stores, post offices, public spaces. He told people he was thinking about moving here, that he has two kids — boys ages 10 and 14 — and asked what they thought of the public schools.

“I heard a lot from people,” Rodriguez said. “That’s when I realized and knew that we needed to rebuild trust. What I heard from people was, ‘We love our school, but the system has work to do.’”

Rebuilding the public’s trust in the school district has become priority No. 1 for Rodriguez since assuming his new role July 1. He has continued the work he began during his initial visit to the Lowcountry in February, spending as much time as possible visiting the various schools in the county — and the communities they serve — and gathering feedback. He will launch a “listening and learning tour” this fall and plans to hold eight listening sessions throughout the county, using the information he gleans to develop the district’s new strategic plan.

He wants people to know they are being heard.

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“Building trust and building relationships increases confidence in the system and that is really essential,” Rodriguez said. “I want people to know that we’re working hard every day and we’re working hard to always do the right thing.”

It’s an approach that would be wise for anyone in Rodriguez’s position, but it’s even more critical considering the school district’s rocky relationship with the public in recent years. Former superintendent Jeff Moss’ tenure was marked by seemingly constant controversy, and the school board has seen drastic turnover after a long period of division bordering on dysfunction.

Rodriguez was not deterred by the elephant in the room, though — he was inspired. “The more I read about the system and what transpired, I felt my personal skillset was suited to make a difference,” he said. “In spite of all of those distractions, our teachers and our principals stayed focused on our kids. That sent me a message that we have great potential. We’ve got a lot of hard-working people dedicated to improving outcomes for all of our students — every single one of them.”

Another common phrase in Rodriguez’s vernacular since coming to Beaufort County is the achievement gap. Data shows disparities in student achievement that break along racial and socio-economic lines — an alarming nationwide trend that persists here.

Rodriguez knows plenty about the value of education in stopping the cycle of poverty, especially for minorities. His grandparents immigrated from Cuba in the late 1950s, leaving everything they owned and knew in search of greater opportunities for their children.

Rodriguez recalls his grandfather instilling in him and his brother the importance of education, “because that’s the one thing no one can take from you.”

“That was his experience,” Rodriguez said. “He had to leave everything behind and rely on his education to make a new life.”

Rodriguez took that advice to heart, but it wasn’t until he began coaching soccer that he realized he was called to teach. The satisfaction he derived from seeing his players execute the skills he taught them was intoxicating.

“I wanted to have that feeling forever,” he said.

He hopes to find that same sense of satisfaction as he refocuses his new district. The job comes with its share of challenges, both short-term and longterm, beginning with a teacher shortage going into the school year and overcrowding at several schools.

Many of those concerns would be addressed if voters approve a $344 million referendum in November. Although he was still watching from afar, Rodriguez was impressed with the process by which the district crafted the referendum, using ample public input to help determine which projects would be included.

He plans to continue on that path of transparency and accountability if the referendum passes by creating an independent review committee to ensure good stewardship.

With any luck, the next guy who comes to scope out the Lowcountry for his family will hear an enthusiastic endorsement of the school system.