WORCESTER, MASS. — Donna Rodrigues had been teaching in overcrowded public schools for 20 years when the gunshots splintered the air outside her classroom.
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.
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."
Rodrigues pauses long and hard, letting the silence settle. When she leans forward, her eyes dim. "This is poverty," she says. "Poverty and abuse."
When the first group of 7th graders came in with reading scores at or below 4th grade, Rodrigues had to challenge them to learn - and fast - yet balance that discipline with a nurturing and supportive environment.
"I knew that behavior had to change, that I was not going to be called every name under the book," she says. "I knew that this was going to be a college-bound program, so kids would have to get rid of the street talk. And I knew that the staff would have to be exceptional, because these kids [from Main South] were going to come in much lower."
Rodrigues weaves in and out of the classrooms with total authority, patting students on the head and asking about class as the teachers, beaming, step back and watch her work her magic.
"She's in the classrooms all the time," says June Eressy, who teaches language arts to 7th and 8th graders. "That's part of what helps establish the personal relationships in the school."
Rodrigues knows every student by name. She even knows many of their phone numbers, and isn't afraid to play the mother figure in their lives. In many cases, she's all they've got.
Rodrigues bases many of her methods on trust. The school is quiet - no need for bells - and many students have unlocked cubbyholes, instead of lockers, to stash their belongings.
"It's always been about trust," Rodrigues says. "I have to trust them. I don't want to say that they're afraid of me, but they don't want to disappoint me. It's a different kind of support."
Ms. Eressy says that support makes all the difference. "She's very tough with the kids, but she's very fair. They have so much respect for her, because they know she loves them."
Rodrigues describes herself as a pit bull. But a group of juniors, gathered around a table near the cafeteria in the basement, are contemplating her role in their lives, and say she's anything but.
"The whole pit bull persona she puts out is not really what she is," one girl says. "She puts it out there to make people think it's what she is, but on a one-to-one level, she's like a mother."
It helps, they say, that their principal grew up in Main South. "She's protecting us, but it's not like she's putting us in this little hole or some alter reality," an 11th grade boy says. "She has been through this, and she escaped from the hardness. She is a great example for us."
It isn't easy. Despite the incredible gains Rodrigues sees in each of her students, there are a handful she still struggles to reach. But she refuses to give up.
"There's this one student," she says. "He's had a terrible life. And he holds back. He's failing a class that he has to pass, so I said, 'Come down and talk to me.' "
She asked the senior about his future, about the role models in his own life, and said: "Wouldn't you like to look up and be able to talk to a positive black man in this school? To talk about some things you went through in your life? Don't you think you could be that person to somebody?"
He looked up, she recalls, searching her face for answers. "You could be somebody," she implored, her voice breaking. "You've been here six years, and you've never missed a day of school. There's something in there. Look what you'd add to the lives of these kids. They don't have anybody like you around."
Rodrigues isn't sure if she made a difference - she's made countless attempts before - but the possibility is what she lives for. "You can never, ever stop talking to these kids," she says. "It's all about setting high standards and believing that they can do it. It's such a commitment, but it's something I have to do."
Down the hall, a small, shy 11th-grade girl speaks up: "Imagine walking down the hall and your principal comes up to you and says, 'I love you,' and gives you a big hug," she says. "She would really risk her life for us. She would actually do it. You can't put any more into your job."