Oct. 26, 2018

Arturo Rodriguez

COMMON GROUND — Arturo Rodriguez, coordinator (principal) at the Newcomer Program, knows firsthand what his immigrant students often experience. But he and his staff are working hard to ensure the education they receive is fair and balanced.

Arturo Rodriguez is a first-generation American. His family has roots in Puerto Rico, but moved to the Midwest — specifically Chicago — in the 1960s.

Born in America, Rodriguez grew up in Gary, Ind., where he attended schools from kindergarten through high school. But those school memories aren’t particularly fond ones.

“I used to be an ESL student for years, but back when I was in school it was called bilingual education. For me it wasn’t a good experience because the teachers always had low expectations of you,” said Rodriguez. “It got to a point that I already knew what book they were going to present to me because it was the same book year after year.”

A longtime educator with 12 years of experience in IPS schools, Rodriguez is in his first year as coordinator (principal) of IPS’ Newcomer Program, which educates immigrant students new to the city who have little to no knowledge of the English language.

The program, located on the second floor inside Northwest Middle School, is designed to educate students for a year, improving their English and preparing for them for their transition into traditional IPS schools.

Newcomer has a student population of 150 students from elementary to high school, from 23 different countries, who speak 15 different languages. Flags from those countries hang from the ceiling.

The program embraces students and their families, helping them acclimate to a new country, a new language, but also pushing students to excel, despite their barriers.

It’s an experience opposite of the one Rodriguez had as a kid being pigeonholed academically, when he knew he was capable of so much more. And it was frustrating.

“By the time I got into high school, I knew my courses were going to be remedial and general education, and it was limiting me on what I wanted to do.”

So, when his cousin — “who was more fair-skinned than me” — decided to transfer from the high school they attended together, Rodriguez assumed his cousin’s more rigorous schedule. That only lasted about eight weeks before school officials found out what he was doing.

A school counselor came to his aid, showing how well he did in the more advanced classes, which allowed him to keep his schedule.

“It opened my eyes when I got in those classes to see how different it was and to see kids raising their hands and their opinions being valued. I was a freshman,” said Rodriguez. “The teachers treated you so different than what I was used to from kindergarten through eighth-grade.”

Although he endured what many students of color do in schools across the country, Rodriguez never considered being a teacher. Now, he believes it’s probably what should’ve always been in his plans.

Rodriguez is proud to lead a school focused on properly educating immigrant families.

“I always wanted to teach people that look like me,” said Rodriguez, a husband and father of three. “I’m so blessed to be here and I enjoy my time here.”

To help his student avoid the educational stereotypes he experienced, Rodriguez and his staff help students learn to advocate for themselves. But not exactly like he did his freshman year in high school.

“Maybe me being here, knowing that I went through that experience makes it a little bit easier for my students,” said Rodriguez. “I hope my experience makes it easier for these kids, because they come from everywhere. Mainly, they need to advocate and speak up and don’t be afraid.

Rodriguez said he loves his job because he always feels like he’s giving back.