WEST BRIGHTON — When Robert Rodriguez, 39, took the helm at P.S. 18 elementary school in West Brighton nearly four years ago, there was a lot of work to do.
Attendance was below 90% and test scores were down, but Rodriguez, who grew up in Bushwick and moved to Stapleton eight years ago, was unfazed.
He started a number of programs to improve the school, including a monthly "super hero" assembly to call out children with perfect attendance.
"We stress the import of attendance in academic achievement," he said. "If the students are not here, how can we be held responsible for ensuring that students are held to the same standards as every one else?"
So far, his work has paid off. The school had 93.1% attendance last school year, and is currently almost passing 95%.
Rodriguez said the school's still working to improve test scores and increase parent involvement.
But for Rodriguez, who was born in the Dominican Republic but emigrated to Brooklyn when he was 8, the best part about his work is not the increased scores, but empowering children who come from the same background as he did.
"I come from the same social economic status and background as all the students that attend this school and one thing that I'm proud about is that I serve as a role model to them," he said.
"As a beacon that no matter where you come from, you can accomplish whatever you want, you just have to work hard."
Q: How have you increased attendance in the school?
A: We do incentives, we have what we call a "Superhero Assembly" where we acknowledge students with perfect attendance. We're also responsible for identifying chronic and severe students that are constantly absent. All of them have mentors and mentors go into the classroom, double check to make sure they're there and if they're not there, one of the things that they have to do is make a phone call just to verify why is your child out?
Q: What are some factors for chronically not attending school?
It's a variation of different factors. It could be the parent's not waking up on time. It is very rare that it's for a critical reason. We probably had one or two last year, but that was because of Hurricane Sandy. Other than that, 95% of our student population lives right across the street [in the West Brighton Houses], so it's a matter of all of us assuming the responsibility. If they're out, or if a student is out for more than three days, the teacher calling, the mentor calling, administration team and members of the attendance team calling.
The trend has been for these students that are chronic and severe, unfortunately enough, those are the students that are lagging behind.
Q: What other changes have you made to the school since you got here?
A: There are many activities that we tried to incorporate. We try to bring the parents in, validate their voice and make them feel appreciated.
We do a lot of after school activities, such as family literacy night, family math night. We do assemblies as well where we bring the families in. We have Hispanic Heritage month, Black History month celebrations, where we pretty much provide an assembly program, and after we cater a dinner for the community.
We contract artists from the Brooklyn Arts Council to come in and preform in addition to the students performing. I'm a true believer of arts in education.
One of the messages that we try to make clear is that it takes a village to raise our kids. It's teacher participation, its parental involvement, it's all of us working together to ensure that our students succeed in the future.
Q: Was art a big focus of the school before?
A: Before, it wasn't. Our art program, our music program, I think they're vital to the teaching and learning process.
One of the things that I do require from classroom teachers is to participate in a school wide assembly. They have two assemblies that they do a year. Out of classroom personnel also put together a career day.
We've gotten artists, people from Broadway, businesses, accountants, doctors, firefighters, police officers, you name it we've gotten. I think that is important especially for our students to see professionals that they usually don't see outside their environment.
Q: What other areas are you looking to improve in the school?
A: We have to improve our overall ELA and math standards. We have a lot of obstacles that impair our students from performing as well as South Shore schools. The obstacles in their way are malnutrition, attendance, lack of resources, a lack of parental involvement in regards to are parent's reading to their children, ensuring that students are progressing academically. It could be for different reasons. They're working too many hours, not enough valuable time spent home with their children.
I think that one of the things that our students lack is background knowledge. They read all these books, they have no knowledge of them because of the limited resources. Many of them don't go to the library unless they go to the library here. The Staten Island Zoo is four or five blocks from here, but a very limited number of our parents actually take their kids there.