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LAUSD board President Ref Rodriguez on DACA and his parents’ sacrifices for his education: ‘I’m someone’s dream deferred, so I could have something better’

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | September 6, 2017



Ref Rodriguez with his parents on July 6, the day he was elected board president.

For this school board president, the end of DACA is personal.

Ref Rodriguez’s dad has only a third-grade education, and his mom left school at sixth grade. They were migrant workers in Mexico who came to the United States to offer their children a better future through education.

So Tuesday’s announcement that the Trump Administration was ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program hit Rodriguez hard. The new president of the nation’s second-largest school district spent the day in his office talking to media and meeting with Dreamers, including Juan Casas, who shared his story in tears.

“I see in DACA youth that same dream my parents had for me and my siblings bringing us to this country,” Rodriguez said. “I’m someone’s dream deferred so I could have something better.”

Rodriguez presides over the LA Unified board in a district where Latinos make up three-quarters of the student population, a quarter of whom come from immigrant families. District 5, which he represents, includes the predominantly Latino communities of City Terrace and Highland Park in northeast Los Angeles as well as the cities of Bell, Maywood, Vernon, South Gate, Huntington Park, and South Los Angeles.

“It impacted me profoundly,” Rodriguez said Wednesday. “It deeply concerned me what’s going to happen with our DACA students and employees, our DACA teachers, their students. I felt that we have an enormous responsibility for them as human beings.”

Rodriguez, 46, was the first of his four siblings to be born in the United States. His family is in this country legally thanks to the Immigration Reform and Control Act that provided amnesty in the mid-1980s.

“I don’t have any family members who are under DACA or undocumented, but I see the younger generations in my family and they do the same as the Dreamers. They work, they go to college, and contribute to our society.”

To pay for their children’s schools, his parents cleaned offices in Glendale at night. During the day, his dad worked at a Sears warehouse — the first job he got after arriving in the U.S. and where he stayed for over 30 years — and his mom took care of the home and kids.

“I think we were always aware of the sacrifice that was made to send us to a private Catholic school. That’s how we got the value of education.”

Rodriguez and his siblings attended public schools in their early years but ended up at Catholic schools because they were easier for his parents to navigate.

Rodriguez and his parents.

“They didn’t know how to navigate an institution, but they knew how to navigate church. They found that comfort level that they couldn’t find in the public system,” said Rodriguez, who turned down a full-ride scholarship to UC Berkeley to attend Loyola Marymount University, a local Catholic university because it was what he knew. He graduated in 1995 and earned his doctorate in 2006 from Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara.

His parents’ sacrifice is what makes Rodriguez so highly value the power that parents have in advocating for their children’s education. It’s what inspired him to become a leader in education and to fight to protect their power.

Recalling his mother’s humiliation at the hands of a school official makes him especially sensitive to the way parents are treated in schools. He wants to make sure no other parent has to feel “like they don’t have the right to fight for the best education for their kids.”

“I remember once my little brother forgot his book at home and my mom had to go to the school’s principal office where she was lectured in a way that I could see how the strength that she normally had left her body. She looked like she had lost her power.

“That’s not how a parent should feel when advocating for their kids. No one knows their children better than their parents, and when this sort of wall comes up, to me that’s criminal.”

A young Rodriguez at home with his parents.

It is not by chance that Rodriguez often listens more than he talks at board meetings, particularly if it is a parent raising a concern. He welcomes parents contacting him first if they have an issue at their school. He doesn’t mind if they start at the top.

“They can contact my office and I can put them in contact with the right person. That’s my main job is as a representative of my constituents in District 5.”

He has introduced several resolutions aligned with his priorities on empowering teachers, ensuring meaningful local control for parents, teachers, and students, and engaging parents as the district’s partners. He has supported resolutions to protect immigrant families and establish “Safe Zones.” Another resolution supported parents’ right to high-quality school options. His first resolution as president created a “Kids First” agenda putting the interests of students ahead of those of adults.

At the first board meeting, he chose to start off with students speaking about their schools rather than union leaders giving reports. And he launched a “Kids First” help desk to greet parents at board meetings and connect them with people who can help.

Before joining the board, he co-founded PUC Schools, one of LA’s largest charter school organizations. Whatever his role, Rodriguez considers that his most important job is to “connect families with the resources they need.”

“I like to listen to parents. I want to connect them with the right person to help move things forward in a way that will help their kids. It doesn’t sound powerful, but actually it is.”

With an estimated 1 in 4 LA Unified students having a parent who is undocumented, Rodriguez says he knows exactly what parents want to hear to be reassured.

More than ever, he says it’s important to have in place the “safe zones” and sanctuary schools policies so parents never feel worried about sending their kids to school or sharing their personal information.

“ICE officers won’t be allowed in our schools,” Rodriguez told Univision on Tuesday.

He recognizes that in a school district as big as LA Unified, that can be difficult to accomplish on a large scale. But he believes it can be done one school at a time.

“It can’t just be a poster in the school, we need to do more than that,” he said referring to the district’s new “We Are One LA Unified” campaign supporting immigrant families that launched a week before school started and offers an online resource guide and a toolkit in both English and Spanish.

“I have asked the superintendent to keep us informed in her monthly report on how the resources are being implemented in schools and if the district’s employees are ready to support these families,” he said.

In his downtime, Rodriguez disconnects from the weighty issues at work by watching reality TV shows. “I’m obsessed with the show Below Deck and the Real Housewives,” he said, laughing.

He also enjoys spending time with his partner of 19 years, Ron. He feels proud to be open about being gay, but he confessed it wasn’t easy at the beginning when he came out in his 20s. “I think it’s important in my position being a good role model, especially being a Catholic Latino gay man.

“I came out when I fell in love with my husband and I told my mom. She advised me then not to tell my dad and to give him some time. We didn’t talk for years.”

But that changed one Sunday morning when his dad knocked on his door. “He had a tree trimmer and said he was there to clean the overgrown tree, and that was it. That’s how we started talking again and Ron became part of the family.”

Rodriguez said he and his husband have no plans to have children of their own, because of their age and because they have a very big family already.

“I have 75 cousins on one side of my family and four nieces. I also have 640,000 kids I’m responsible for.”

Aside from his role on the board  — he was elected in May 2015 and will serve through 2020 — he has no other aspirations other than to continue being an educator. “The only reason I decided to run for this position was because I thought the district wasn’t moving in the direction it should,” he said. “Education is where I want to spend the rest of my life working. I’d love to go back and be a school principal, I’d love that!”

But in the end, he said, “I’m still that kid from Cypress Park. The kid who knew that his parents were sacrificing for him to go to college. The kid who knew their parents left their family behind so we could have a better life. That’s still who I am.”

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