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The principal who knows their names

By Elizabeth ArmstrongStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 1, 2003


Donna Rodrigues had been teaching in overcrowded public schools for 20 years when the gunshots splintered the air outside her classroom.

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It was a divisive moment in her life, holding her student in the hallway, watching him slip quietly away. She wasn't able to save him, and she wrestles with that to this day. "Kids deserve as many chances as they can get," she says. "I can never write a kid off. It's never been in me."

So it seemed the appropriate next step when, in 1996, after 28 years of teaching, Ms. Rodrigues was asked to be a principal - a position she felt might enable her to play a bigger role in the lives of her students. The city's prestigious Clark University had decided to open University Park Campus School, a public school grades 7 through 12, as part of a larger effort to improve the conditions of Main South, the surrounding neighborhood.

Notable for its crumbling buildings, thriving drug scene, and relentless gang warfare, Main South was slipping into abject disrepair. Clark officials hoped that, by providing neighborhood children with a healthy and challenging learning environment (and by paying the tuition to students accepted at Clark), the neighborhood might gradually lift itself up out of poverty and neglect, and Clark might seem a more appealing campus to applicants around the country.

But the school needed a mahatma of sorts, a principal who could inspire radical change in the incoming students. They found it in the fiery Rodrigues.

"The best thing we ever did was hire her," says Jack Foley, assistant to the president of Clark and a mentor to three students at University Park. "There is no one out there like Donna."

Under her guidance, the school opened its doors in 1997 to a class of 30 7th-graders in a building just down the road from Clark's manicured lawns and red brick campus. Today, those 30 students are seniors who, along with only a handful of senior classes in Massachusetts, boast a 100 percent pass rate on the state's mandatory MCAS test.

While many neighborhood friends are dropping out of high school, University Park students lay claim to a 98 percent attendance rate, and set their sights on Clark, Brown, and Harvard.

Rodrigues draws attention from around the country for her solid handle on the school's 215 students. She constantly gives tours to university officials looking to start similar schools in their communities, and many wonder, after visiting University Park, how Rodrigues manages to nurture an environment of respect, acceptance - and talent.

A different kind of support

In the mornings, when the principal announces the latest senior to be accepted at college, cheers resound throughout the building as students jump to their feet in applause.

"These kids see the school as another family," Rodrigues says in her office, a modest room up the stairs from the school's main entrance. Previously an elementary school, the building feels like home, its winding staircases and worn, wooden floors reminiscent of a once glorious mansion.

"I've been [teaching] so long, and I've never had kids give praise to each other like that," she says. "Never. It's just in the culture of this school."

One major factor, Rodrigues concedes, is the sheer size of the student body - just 40 students per grade, and 30 in 11th and 12th grade. "Small schools are always better," Rodrigues says.

Her first mission was to devise a set of core values. "I thought, I'm going to roll up my sleeves and do this right," she recalls.

Rodrigues knew her students were coming from a rough area (she, too, grew up in Main South) and that it would be difficult to reach them - both intellectually and emotionally.

"Mostly the mothers are bringing these kids up, and they're living on scraps," she says. "If men were involved in the household, there was a lot of abuse. And the young boys have risen to the father figures at home. That's a difficult role for a young man. Most of them couldn't play basketball or be in extra-curricular things after school because they had to help pay the rent."