FINANCIAL DISTRICT — When Robert Rhodes took the helm of Millennium High School in the months following 9/11, the idea for the school was little more than a dream of downtown residents. Today the Financial District school is among the most popular in the city, and Rhodes, 43, has numerous honors under his belt, including a Cahn Fellowship for outstanding principals in 2008. Rhodes, who lives in Brooklyn and has a 7-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter, is particularly proud of his students for recently thinking up the idea for an urban farm in Battery Park.
DNAinfo sat down with Rhodes to talk about his high school memories and his vision for Millennium.
Q: Where did you go to high school?
I grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, just outside of Cleveland. I went to a public school, Shaker Heights High School. [It was] sort of like the Ivy League of public schools. It was very highly competitive.
Q: Was there a school project you did that you were particularly proud of?
For [Advanced Placement] US History, I had an amazing teacher. We had a State History Day contest every year. A family member had bought all these letters at some garage sale out in the country someplace, this correspondence between two sisters who were arguing over the inheritance of their land. For my project, I took the letters and tried to dramatize them. There were 20 to 25 letters over three years, and I talked about the meaning of land, of family.
Q: Did you play any sports?
I lifted weights with a couple buddies two to three times per week, but I never really got into organized sports. I was more about my studies, and I was very involved with the foreign exchange. Probably one of the things I'm most proud of is that I lived in Brazil as an exchange student during high school. It's an incredible experience for students, to go somewhere else and see how other people are living — it makes their world a lot bigger.
Q: Did you ever fail a test?
I definitely struggled with math. I took advanced math classes — I got a D in honors pre-calculus the first time through, but I retook it that summer and did much better.
Q: How did you decide to become a teacher?
I fell into it. When I first graduated [from Sarah Lawrence College], it was the recession of the early 90s, which felt big at the time. I liked school, I liked learning, and I figured I should stay close to that and teach for a couple years while I figured out exactly what I wanted to do. I started teaching math when I was 22 years old and my students were 21-year-olds who had been thrown out of other high schools. I was too naïve to know how far I was over my head, but I really liked it. I started getting good at it.
Q: How did you become the founding principal of Millennium High School?
[While working as assistant principal at the School of the Future] I got a call from the superintendent saying there was a new high school starting, and could I write a proposal. I said, 'Can I have the weekend to think about it?' She said, 'Sure.' I hung up the phone and did a little dance. I knew I was going to say yes — that was a once-in-a-lifetime phone call.
Q: And now, just nine years after you opened, Millennium was recently named one of the most popular high schools in the city. What draws students there?
We're offering a solid education, a great facility and a fantastic location. People who visit the school on tours remark on the vibe: People talk to each other. Everyone works hard but no one looks hassled. Teachers really care. People here are very energetic. They're thoughtful. It feels like a place you can be yourself and be accepted and be seen.
Q: What is the single most important thing you want Millennium students to learn before they graduate?
I would want them to always be thinking about what they really want to do — with their life, with the paper they have to write, with their friends — and make real choices. To lead a reflective life.