Before submitting his application for superintendent of the Beaufort County School District, Frank Rodriguez spent four days last February visiting every school, looking at the communities they served and asking questions of the people he met in places like the public library, Kroger and the gas station.
"I'd ask them 'I'm thinking about moving here and I have two kids. What can you tell me about the schools?'" he said. "What I found out was that people here really love their schools. They love the teachers, the individual administrators and some even went to those schools."
After his appointment July 1, 2019, Rodriguez went to work across the district through his "Listen and Learn" tour.
"I've had quite a few speaking engagements across our community," he said.
In discussions with parents, community groups and staff, he asked: What are people most proud of in the Beaufort County School District?; Where is there opportunity for growth and improvement within the district?; and, How can everyone work together to seek greater outcomes for students?
The answers, Rodriguez said, will be part of the five-year plan.
"Some key components in that plan revolve around making sure we are providing highly effective instruction for students, and providing the right professional development opportunities for our staff," Rodriguez said. "I'm someone who believes that there always room for improvement. I see our work as a journey and not a destination, and there's always an opportunity to get better. We've never arrived but we're always getting better."
Once the school year began in August, he started making the rounds of the schools, speaking with teachers and students.
"What drives me to do my work every day is making sure the kids I'm privileged to serve get a great education. I'm in classrooms at least three times a week," he said. "I made a commitment to myself when I made administrator years ago that I would stay close to the classrooms, and I do that to see learning and instruction take place. That's important, because whatever decisions we make in the administration plays out in the classrooms."
Rodriguez began his teaching career in Boca Raton, Fla., before becoming a program coordinator at Florida Atlantic University, then a district social studies secondary curriculum supervisor for the Palm Beach County School District.
He has served as a high school assistant principal, an elementary school principal and a high school principal before serving at the district level in Palm Beach County.
Prior to his arrival in Beaufort County, Rodriguez was a regional superintendent in Palm Beach County supervising 54 schools and 58,000 students in diverse communities.
After settling in to his new position in the Lowcountry, Rodriguez focused on the proposed $344 million school bond referendum set for the Nov. 5 county elections, the third referendum in 11 years. The previous two bonds failed at the polls.
Scheduling eight meetings at different county schools, the new superintendent briefed parents and community members on the details of the referendum, which would upgrade safety and security, update technology, increase classroom space, and renovate and repair structural issues in aging buildings.
The referendum passed with 70 percent of the voters approving the bond request. It set in motion the creation of an independent, citizen-led volunteer committee that will monitor related expenditures, as well as kick-starting additions to River Ridge Academy and May River High School.
Rodriguez believes in keeping the community informed about what happens in its school district.
"One of the things I found during my visit, even before applying, was building a trusting relationship between the community and the school district was really important for the district," he said. "I also think building a relationship with the Sun City community and its resource of retired educators is an important aspect of building relationship within the community."
In the 2019 state schools assessment, four of the county's 34 schools were rated below average. While the latest report is an improvement over all previous reports, there's work to be done, as Rodriguez said.
A primary goal is to "put a dent in the achievement gap that exists. That is important. That is something we have to work at ...," he said. "Achievement gaps don't close overnight. You generally close one or two points a year."
It's not all work and no play for the superintendent and his family. They've discovered a wealth of engaging opportunities in the Lowcountry.
"I think that there is so much outdoor activity and things to do here in all of Beaufort County that my family and I absolutely love it. We love to be outdoors," he said. "We love to bike ride and go to festivals and community events and there is always something to do here all the time and we love that."
That's the cherry on the sundae for Rodriguez because the school district is something he brags about, too.
"There are a lot of great things happening in our schools. We have a lot of work to do and I am excited about the challenges and the opportunity to get that done," he said. "I like to talk to teachers and hear from teachers. I think there's a great story to be told, and I want anyone who wants to know and tell it to come with me and see what great things our kids are doing."
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.