The mood was light and a bit jovial in the Stockton Unified boardroom as Michelle Rodriguez, Stockton Unified’s new superintendent, mingled with community members, students and staff.
At one point, Rodriguez sat down and introduced herself to SUSD student Francisca Vargas. She first spoke to Vargas in English before alternating to Spanish.
Rodriguez, who is fluent in both languages, said she wants the district’s Spanish speaking community to know they are important and that she is available to them.
“I think with any family, it’s all about approachability,” Rodriguez said at a meet and greet Thursday that she hosted entirely in Spanish. “By (Spanish speakers) understanding and being able to see me really engaged with him in Spanish, then they know when they see me at an event or on the street or in the market that they can in fact actually engage with me and have that rich conversation.”
District trustees Board President AngelAnn Flores, Vice President Kennetha Stevens and Board Clerk Sofia Colón were all in attendance at the event. Colón said that the district has a large population of students that speak more than one language or their primary language is not English, most of whom speak Spanish.
“The fact that Dr. Rodriguez is fluent (in Spanish) makes it just a bonus to hear her words directly from her mouth … and the passion that comes from her speaking directly to our parents,” Colón said.
About 29% of Stocktonians speak Spanish at home, according to U.S. Census data. The California Department of Education also reports that nearly 70% of SUSD students identify as Hispanic or Latino and about 8,500 of the district’s nearly 10,000 English learning students are Spanish speakers.
Rodriguez, who held a duplicate event the week before in English, said that she tries to give equal importance and care to both English speaking and Spanish speaking families.
“Something that I want (Spanish speakers) to know is that we value and care for them the same as we do our monolingual families,” Rodriguez said, noting that trying to hold a meeting simultaneously in Spanish and English takes up a lot of time for everyone. “So this allows both our staff and our families … who prefer to hear the content in Spanish to be able to do that.”
She also wanted the Spanish speaking community to get to know her as a person by hearing her story in her own words and to know that many of her life experiences are linked to their own.
Rodriguez married into a Latino family more than two decades ago. She has gotten to enjoy and understand the many customs of that community, particularly the significance given to extended family members.
“Of course everybody thinks family is important, but extended family is very important to the Latino community,” Rodriguez said. “Recognizing that and knowing that, I think, is important.”
She also spent a lot of time in Mexico when her husband was deported earlier in their relationship, describing the legal process for him to legally return to the U.S. as “really long.”
“That luckily happened 27 years ago. So it happened a long time ago, but it still was the stress and pain of seeing that happen,” Rodriguez said. “A lot of people don’t really recognize and know that.”
As a native English speaker, Rodriguez also understands the challenges of not only learning a second language but also receiving academic instruction in that language, having spent a portion of her college career in Spain. The academic version of a language is not the same as just speaking conversationally, she said.
“Every day when I would leave the university my head would feel like it was gonna explode,” Rodriguez said, recalling the stark contrast to the “super easy” experience she had going to schools that taught in English. “It’s really given me perspective, too, when people are talking about the challenges of learning language, learning content.”
A student who speaks well conversationally in English may have issues with academic English, said Rodriguez, who has also worked as dual-language immersion teacher on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Rodriguez officially began her tenure as the Stockton Unified Superintendent Saturday. She says she’s looking forward to hitting the ground running — together.
“I want us to try to forget the noise of what’s happened in the past. Let’s fix it and let’s move forward, but also celebrate what’s actually happening,” Rodriguez said. “Let’s celebrate those accolades. Let’s improve things so we can celebrate even more.”
Though there are likely to be many challenges Rodriguez and the district will face in the coming months.
Stockton Unified has seen a rough few years, including infighting amongst district leadership, a revolving door of superintendents, two scathing grand jury reports, an unbalanced budget and evidence of fraud found by state investigators in some of the district’s financial dealings.
However, Rodriguez is confident that she can handle what comes, otherwise she wouldn’t have accepted the job.
“I’m not saying it won’t be without challenges and it won’t be without times in which there’s gonna be conflict or disagreement,” Rodriguez said. “But I’m ready to stay the course. And the students and families need that.”