WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — High schooler Estiven Rodriguez is adored by his teachers and principals at the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, and last week the 17-year-old also received praise from the world's most powerful man.
President Barack Obama singled out Rodriguez for his hard work at WHEELS during remarks he made Thursday at the College Opportunity Summit in Washington, D.C. The president lauded Rodriguez, who didn't speak English when he moved from the Dominican Republic at age 9, for earning a full college scholarship.
"Today, with the support of a tightly knit school community, he’s one of the top students in his senior class," Obama said at the summit, with Rodriguez in attendance. "This son of a factory worker who didn’t speak much English just six years ago won a competitive scholarship to attend Dickinson College this fall."
The president's praise came as a surprise to Rodriguez and his principal, Brett Kimmel, who were invited to Washington less than 24 hours before the summit.
"We didn't know until that exact moment," Rodriguez told DNAinfo New York. "It was a complete shock. It was the best thing ever in my life."
Kimmel said that Rodriguez, who has attended the school since sixth grade, deserved every bit of recognition.
"He's as hardworking, humble and sweet as any student that I've ever worked with," Kimmel said.
Obama also recognized WHEELS' college application parade, an annual tradition at the 182nd Street school in which family and underclassmen cheer in the streets while the seniors march from the school to the post office in order to mail applications. The event has inspired similar parades across the city and in Wisconsin, Maine and Massachusetts.
"You would have thought it was the Macy’s parade," Obama said. "But the crowds on the sidewalk were parents and teachers and neighbors. The flags were college pennants."
The parade, created by school assistant principal Jenny Rodriguez, is part of an effort to get the school's students, who are predominantly Latino and come from lower-income families, excited about going to college, Kimmel said.
"Our goal is to get every kid applying to college," said the principal, whose school was approved by the DOE to expand to K-12 starting next year.
As if getting a shoutout wasn't cool enough, Rodriguez and Kimmel had the chance to chat with the president after the speech.
"He told me he was proud of me, but that this was only the beginning," Rodriguez said. "He said I had to prove myself in college, and he told me not to get 'senioritis.'"