In a recent episode, we talked with a family, the Lukases (or Lukai, as they call themselves), that is on its second generation of students attending Lida Hooe Elementary. For this episode, I sat down with Lida Hooe Principal Fernando Rodriguez to talk about what makes the school special.
A clear message that came through our conversation is that the staff and the faculty at Lida Hooe care. Teachers care about forming genuine relationships with their students. And the administration cares about the academic success of each of their students and won’t stop working until each student reaches their potential.
After my interview with Rodriguez, I walked around to see the campus for myself with Lida Hooe instructional coach Kimberly Alexander.
Keri Mitchell: How long have you been in DISD? Just what’s your history? Just for fun.
Fernando Rodriguez: I have been with Dallas ISD my entire career in education. I started as a first grade teacher at Saldivar Elementary. Back then, we were organized by areas. So it was area seven, which encompassed a big part of Northwest Dallas.
Keri Mitchell: How long ago was that?
Fernando Rodriguez: That was approximately 15 years ago, and so after working there for two years, I needed to get a little bit closer to home — the commute and everything. So I moved to Oak Cliff. I taught at Bowie Elementary for seven years.
Keri Mitchell: First grade, too, or something different?
Fernando Rodriguez: Kindergarten, second grade, third grade, fifth grade. So I got to see it all, got to see the whole spectrum of what an elementary school looks like what happens with with the younger ones, and how that progresses up through fifth grade. After that, I moved into the administrative role as an assistant principal at Winnetka Elementary, and I was there the three years prior to coming to join Lida Hooe as the principal. So this is my third year.
Keri Mitchell: What’s going on at Lida Hooe? What do you like to brag about?
Fernando Rodriguez: Well, this is this is my third year on campus, of course, as mentioned. I think that this year really we’re continuing to grow on the prior two years. When you look at STAAR data, we can see growth in the past two years. Obviously, we’re not where we want to be yet. Right now, I mean, if we were to look at district data versus our data, I mean, we’re right there. But I mean, if I was the parent of that child that was not there, that’s a concern, right?
Keri Mitchell: Sure.
Fernando Rodriguez: So until we are where we can say that all of our students are maximizing their potential — and that’s what we look at really, growth. Two schools of thought that really impact what I do are looking at AVID, if you’re familiar with what AVID does, but also looking at the restorative practices and what that encompasses and that represents, as far as the emotional part of the emotional learning. This year, we’re implementing the restorative practices piece school-wide also because it’s a form of social-emotional learning. The bottom line with that really falls into the connections, the relationships.
Keri Mitchell: Between the teachers and the students or between the students and the students or all the above?
Fernando Rodriguez: Everything but starting in the classroom, of course. Looking at the the connection between the teacher and the students, the students and the students, and of course that reciprocal relationship with the students back to the teacher also. Getting to know each other, knowing each other and teachers feel like they have a chance to take that time to get to know the kids through those strategies that come with the restorative practices.
Keri Mitchell: So what does that look like in the classroom when they’re doing those strategies? What’s an example?
Fernando Rodriguez: Sure, an example of that would be circle time, what they call circle time. So what you would see if you were to walk in, you would see the students and the teacher sitting on the rug and just usually in a circle. Sometimes the teacher develops the question. Sometimes the students develop the question, but just about roughly 20-30 minutes of time for the students just to share and get to know each other, build connections.
Keri Mitchell: So they’re kind of asking some sort of question and answering it in a … it sounds like what we in the corporate world might call an icebreaker or something like that.
Fernando Rodriguez: I guess in a way it could be that.
Keri Mitchell: So does it kind of give them a glimpse into maybe something their students are dealing with, grappling with, thinking about and then it impacts the academic?
Fernando Rodriguez: That’s exactly what it does. It helps the adults get to know the kids and their thoughts and their feelings and what they’re grappling with, like you said. And at the same time, as kids, they like to know who that adult standing in front of the classroom is also, because the adult also participates in that and answers the question. It’s getting to know each other, bottom line. Another thing that I’m proud of, that we’re proud of, is the fact that we have really high retention of our teachers.
Keri Mitchell: That’s a big deal.
Fernando Rodriguez: So this is my third year here at the campus, and we’ve had 95% to 96% of our teachers return last year. Same the year before. So we’re really able to keep working and developing. That’s another strength.
Keri Mitchell: Stability is a big deal in education.
Fernando Rodriguez: This year, we’ve also acquired a lot of support and help from the community as well.
Keri Mitchell: In what ways?
Fernando Rodriguez: We have a garden that was redone, some garden beds that are right outside the building where we’re looking to start a gardening club as well. Also, we will be receiving either new playground equipment or a new playground. So we’ll have more opportunities for the kids to enjoy recess. They love recess, so that’s coming. So we’re very thankful for that as well. And I mean just the great staff, you know, we’re a small campus also.
Keri Mitchell: How many kids here?
Fernando Rodriguez: We hover around 420.
Keri Mitchell: Yeah. These days that’s small. It used to be normal, but these days, it’s a little small. Yeah. But there’s a lot of good things that can come out of that, right?
Fernando Rodriguez: Well, yeah, I think that obviously we’re not at the maximum that the building can hold. I view the building as a service to the community. So you know, we’re here to support the community and have as many students as we can hold come in. So on that part, it’s where we’re lacking still. We’re not serving the amount of students that we can. We have more space available. On the other hand, of course, you know, I think as a parent I can see it being an advantage where you have smaller teacher vs student ratios.
Keri Mitchell: What are your class average ratios?
Fernando Rodriguez: It depends. They range from, we have some classes that we have about 14 students, and then we have some that can get up to — nobody is above the requirement or the right the ratio that TEA sets for us — but from 14 to about 20.
Keri Mitchell: What are your challenges here? I know, one of the things we talked to the Lukas family about was just, you know, the changes in the neighborhood obviously are impacting who lives around here? And are they coming? Do you get people who call and come in for tours or, you know, check it out? Or there are some people who are just kind of opting to go elsewhere without even taking a look?
Fernando Rodriguez: We don’t have very many people calling to come and take a tour of the building. We’ve had one in the time that I’ve been here. So that may be a challenge definitely, you know, letting people know that we’re open for tours.
Keri Mitchell: Do you have pre-k here on campus?
Fernando Rodriguez: We do. We do. We have pre-k 4.
Keri Mitchell: Are your kids coming in with a lot of needing to catch up from at the Pre-K and kindergarten level or are they coming in kind of ready to go? How does that work here?
Fernando Rodriguez: We catch up. I mean, there’s some catch up that needs to happen. Not completely, of course. Roughly we have around 90% when it comes to low socioeconomic status. So, of course, we have all the entails of that. I would say, though, are you familiar with Avance?
Keri Mitchell: No, I’m sorry.
Fernando Rodriguez: So Avance is an organization that works with parents and students who are younger than pre-k age. They come to our campus every Thursday, every Thursday morning, roughly, from about 8 a.m. to noon. And we have roughly about 30-35 parents who come every Thursday. Avance teaches them strategies on helping their students, helping their children at home. They’ll also bring in resources from the community to let them know, you know, I think last time I think they had an immigration lawyer who was talking with them, giving them information, but at the same time that the parents are there learning strategies for helping their children, the children are also here. These are 1 year olds, 2 year olds, 3 year olds that are also learning and starting to be in a structured environment of learning. Children can come here as well to a program that is for pre-pre-k and then let them know. Yeah, I mean, I’m glad to take transfers.
Keri Mitchell: Do you have a lot of transfers already?
Fernando Rodriguez: Of our 420 students, maybe 15% or so. Roughly around there.
Keri Mitchell: Do they come because, you know, maybe the other family members come here or they’ve heard about it somehow? What’s the main trigger for transfers?
Fernando Rodriguez: Both of those but also adding on to that just work being closer, being more feasible, being a more feasible option for work. Or they have family here that can help out with a work situation or pick up and bringing to school and so on.
Keri Mitchell: That makes sense. What would your parents say is the best part about Lida Hooe?
Fernando Rodriguez: The parent survey that we have every year, some things that that were really high on that. One was that I believe we had about 90% to 96% of the parents feel that the school is moving in the right direction. And of course, I know that’s vague, right? But I think it still encompasses, I mean, the gist of it. We’re moving in the right direction, right? Academically, scores are coming up. We want it to be a welcoming environment also. The parents do feel like they can, they can come inside the building. They’re a part of the community. This is their school. This is our school.
Keri Mitchell: Both the Lukas family and, I can’t remember her name right now, but one of your teachers emailed me. There was very much a … they emphasized, and you said this, too, the importance of each family. That every family is important. Where does that come from? And how does that make an impact? It’s kind of a no-brainer, but that seems very intentional. So I assume it comes from somewhere.
Fernando Rodriguez: Yeah, gosh, where does that come from? Where does that come from? I believe that education is one of, if not the most, important social system that we have. And it’s powerful, because it can take our students and give them the tools to, first of all, have a better life and not just economically, not just money wise, but education. And just in the broad term of education. When you become educated on any topic, ranging from math to just life itself, you can make better decisions. I’m really proud to be a part of this social social system that we have: education. Because I see the importance, the huge impact that it has. I came into education through alternative certification. I was originally a graduate in engineering. So I have a bachelor’s in engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington. And it was right around the huge tech bubble burst. We had huge amounts of outsourcing going to other countries. At the time, I saw it as, “Oh, that’s not good.” But looking back at it now, I mean, that’s what allowed me then to discover this other engineering career. I call it another engineering career, because as an engineer, we work a lot with physical systems. But as an educator, I’m working with social systems, and they’re both critical to our culture, to our society. Without these systems our … I mean, we need them both, I would argue even that the social systems are more important or have a higher priority. So I think that it comes from just my … I have this huge value in education. Also myself, my family, growing up in a low socioeconomic family as well and seeing the impact that education, the tools that it brought for me and my siblings and just the keys for them to be able to, to prosper. I think it would be very selfish for me not to work hard to provide those same keys to all of our students.
Keri Mitchell: No, that’s a great answer. I wasn’t expecting that at all, but that’s incredible. I’m also interested you went from being an engineer to a first grade teacher.
Fernando Rodriguez: Yeah.
Keri Mitchell: Most people would assume that an engineer would go to a high school, maybe junior high. Why first grade? Why elementary?
Fernando Rodriguez: Oh, that’s funny that you ask, actually. Well, you’re right. Actually, my first thought was high school. I needed to make my top three choices of where I would want to go and provide support and help be a teacher. My first choice was high school math and science. With the engineering background, of course, I wanted to continue with that. My second choice was a bilingual teacher, and bilingual teachers were needed in the lower grades. So that’s where I went, that’s where they needed me.
Keri Mitchell: And then you stayed?
Fernando Rodriguez: And I stayed.
Keri Mitchell: Why did you stay?
Fernando Rodriguez: Because of the growth that you see. I was a first grade teacher, the growth that I saw when the children arrive at the beginning of the year to when they left was amazing.
Keri Mitchell: When you go home and tell, I’m assuming, your wife or anyone you’re close to, your close friends, a story about Lida Hooe, what’s a favorite story or two that you like to tell?
Fernando Rodriguez: Gosh, what’s a good story. We have a staff that cares about students about the community and also about dogs. A couple of my staff members have adopted some of our stray dogs or cats and sometimes we’ll have them follow the kids in the morning to school. We’ve had a staff member who has actually taken home a couple of animals here. I think it’s just the caring. We have a caring staff. We try to look out.
Keri Mitchell: Do you have kids?
Fernando Rodriguez: I do. I do. My oldest is going to be 8 in April, so she’s a second grader.
Keri Mitchell: Is she here?
Fernando Rodriguez: No unfortunately not, unfortunately not. I live in Waxahachie. We live right across the street, literally when you cross the street, and there is the home campus. So it made better sense for us to make that decision at the time. We’ve considered moving into Dallas. It doesn’t take away anything from the value that I have for what I do.
Keri Mitchell: All right. Thank you so much.
Lida Hooe Instructional Coach Kimberly Alexander: OK, well, come down this way. Over here, you can see we’ve got our cafeteria and the district just did a big redo on a lot of the stuff last year. So we kind of got a little facelift for our cafeteria. But this is where the kids come in in the morning, where they’ll wait after school if the weather’s bad, and then obviously where we have our lunches. So then coming down through here, we’ve got our faculty kind of workroom and lounge. And this is all teacher decorated, so we have a bunch of teachers who have, you know, amazing artistic ability. So they kind of did our mural, took charge on this. Yeah, they did a really good job.
Keri Mitchell: How long have you been here?
Kimberly Alexander: This is only my second year so, I was in middle school for 14 years. I was Quintanilla for 13, and then I went to Edison for a year. And then I’ve been here for two. We have our fifth-grade science.
Keri Mitchell: So the fifth-graders split up into the different subjects?
Kimberly Alexander: Yep. They are departmentalized, so not self-contained, when you get up into some of the upper grades. First grade, right here, some of these are self-contained. I would open them but I don’t want to … if they’re in the middle of something.
Pre-k is easy to pop in on because they’re … we call them them the knee huggers because they reach about here and they just want to hug on your knees. So these are our first-grade and then these are bilingual classrooms. So they do the majority of their instruction in Spanish, so then we have two of our pre-k rooms. They’re still at specials, so we’ll just pass them in the hall. We do have our other little kinder class in here. So — Hi. You’re talking? OK. OK. It’s Jeremy’s birthday? Happy birthday, Jeremy.
Child: My name is Jeremy!
Kimberly Alexander: No it’s not, it’s Isaac you silly goose. OK, we can go upstairs.
Keri Mitchell: I’m sorry. I might have missed it. You’re an instructional coach?
Kimberly Alexander: Yes, I’m their campus reading coach.
Keri Mitchell: All right.
Kimberly Alexander: And I’m sorry. I’m walking around with this giant puffy jacket on. It’s been cold for like two days now in here. So it’s like, then you get hot then you get cold.
Keri Mitchell: Yeah, I know I do the same thing.
Kimberly Alexander: So our second grade classes, this is kind of our second grade group over here. We have about two or three sections [classrooms] depending on, you know, just the number of kids. So second grade we have two gen-eds and one bilingual. Third grade, we have three gen-eds and two bilinguals, so it really just kind of depends on the grade level that year. So we’ve got our fifth grade here. They’re big with the AVID program that we just started.
Keri Mitchell: How is that going?
Kimberly Alexander: Love it. Love it, I mean, it’s just, the kids have thrived.
Keri Mitchell: How is it different?
Kimberly Alexander: I think it would be I think the organizational skills that the kids really start to pick up, the level of questioning difference. It just kind of takes their learning to a little higher level and really makes the kids kind of invest in it.
Keri Mitchell: OK. Interesting.
Kimberly Alexander: And the parents, you know, it’s kind of it’s really kind of a partnership with the school, kids, parents and just kind of compact, you know. Everybody has to have, you know, their binder organized, this certain set of supplies. It’s really kind of helping them take the direct route towards college and career ready.
Keri Mitchell: OK, so everybody has buy-in.
Kimberly Alexander: Yes, definitely, and we rolled it out with fifth-grade this year. So next year we’re hoping that we’ll go ahead and be able to have fourth and fifth and add a great grade each year. The majority of these kids will feed to Greiner, and they’re an AVID campus across the board. So it’s nice that our fifth-graders already get to go there. So this is one of our kindergarten classes coming by. So we’ve got third grade. We’ve got our counselor. She’s actually out today. I like to call it, it’s like a little baby school. So I’ve been in two really, really large campuses and so to come here I was just like, “Where’s the rest of it?” You know, but it’s just, it’s sweet. It makes you feel good when you walk through the halls and you kind of see, you know, you can tell that this has been loved by a lot of kids.
Keri Mitchell: This is gonna sound weird, but this looks nice whereas a lot of historic campuses I’m in, the auditoriums and whatnot look a little more historic. As in old.
Kimberly Alexander: Yeah, absolutely, as in not having been kept up. Here, we really do take advantage of it. We use it a lot. The kids come in in the morning. We do a lot of our after school performances here, PTA meetings, and so maybe that there’s some you know ownership in it, and we want it to look nice and we want it to always be, you know, kept up well.
Keri Mitchell: It’s so light and bright too.
Kimberly Alexander: It’s those big windows. The windows help.
Keri Mitchell: Interesting.
Kimberly Alexander: I think I died and like went to elementary school heaven, and I live so close now. I want to get a bike with a basket to keep my laptop in there and, like, ride to school.
Keri Mitchell: Yes, you’re going to, right?
Kimberly Alexander: Yeah, so fourth grade writing going on. This is one of our two computer labs, good light, good windows as well, and then back over here we have two more fourth grade, and this has good light, good windows as well.
Keri Mitchell: What would you tell people about Lida Hooe? What makes it unique? What’s its identity?
Kimberly Alexander: I think that because we are such a small campus, that really everybody — it’s kind of like “Cheers.” Everybody knows your name, and so it kind of has that feel that you just can walk in. You feel like you’re coming home to a place. The elementary school that I went to was much larger, but it had the same feel, because it was an older historic campus. And it just makes you feel good to be in a place where, you know, that’s established. It’s been successful. You have, you know, generational families who are still sending their kids here.
Keri Mitchell: So people have kind of grown up here, and then they send their kids here?
Kimberly Alexander: Yes, we have kids, you know, whose parents went here and whose grandparents remember coming here. So, some of the students who I taught when I first started with DISD, their kids are here now. And that made me feel really, really old. You know, the first day I started here, like “Miss Alexander!” I was like, “Oh, my gosh, you were in my eighth-grade class. And now your child is a, you know, a 6 year old.”
Keri Mitchell: One of the things we’re focusing on in this series is just trying to tell kind of people what’s out there.
Kimberly Alexander: That’s great.
Keri Mitchell: Because they don’t know it exists, and one of the challenges I think in Oak Cliff overall, not just this school, is you’ve got lots of people moving in and we parents like to talk to each other about, you know, what’s the best school? Are there families around here who don’t come here who maybe just don’t know about it yet?
Kimberly Alexander: I think so. And I think you’ve kind of probably seen a shift. We know it’s been in the news, you know, with people leaving urban districts and going to charter schools and things like that just because I think, quote unquote, “They think they may be getting a better education.” When in reality, it’s the exact same thing. They get the same funding. They have the same requirements that we do and, you know, your neighborhood schools are established. But no, it really is — it’s been really one of my favorite educational stops so far — very, very happy, very lucky. Fortunate, that I was able to get here, and it’s been a great fit. It’s the best, you know, decision I made a long time
Keri Mitchell: Anything else we should know, people should know?
Kimberly Alexander: No, I just think, you know, check out the neighborhood schools. Really take the time to investigate them to see all the good that is going on. I know sometimes urban districts do get bad press, but then maybe don’t buy into what you hear. Really take the time to get out, see the campuses, speak with faculty and talk to other parents whose kids go there. I think that’s your best bet for actually saying it’s the right fit for you and your family.
Thanks for listening to The Uninformed Parent. In the next episode, we’ll talk to a mom who has run the gamut of school choice with her four kids. This podcast is a production of Advocate Magazines with music by HookSounds.