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Making RE a Welcoming Place: Head of School brings kindness, empathy and a relentless work ethic

As a newly admitted sixth grader, Mya Wright ’17 marveled that Rachel Rodriguez, then head of the middle school, addressed every student by name. She appreciated the sincerity of Rodriguez’s effort to welcome everyone. “She made me feel like I was meant to be there, and that success was available to me,” Wright said.
Then came the day in eighth grade that Wright’s single mother suffered a stroke. That afternoon, Rodriguez summoned Wright from class to share the news: Her mother had been admitted to the hospital and wouldn’t be coming home for a while. 

Until her mother had recovered, Rodriguez explained, Wright would stay with a middle school faculty member for several days, then move into a spare bedroom in Rodriguez’s house. 

“That day turned my whole life upside down,” recalled Wright, who attended Mount Holyoke on an academic scholarship and earned a bachelor’s in psychology with a minor in statistics. “But she stepped into action. I didn’t even have to worry about it. She made sure I had a support system immediately … She was a necessary presence for me to thrive and survive.”

On June 9, 2023, Rodriguez was named permanent Head of School at Ransom Everglades after a year as interim head of school. She also served 14 years as Head of the Middle School and two as Assistant Head of the Middle School. When RE Chair of the Board Jonathan Fitzpatrick P’20 ’23 announced the decision to the Ransom Everglades community, he noted that it followed a review of more than 200 candidates identified in an international search. The search committee and trustees, he said, agreed unanimously.

“Mrs. Rodriguez has 17 years of experience with RE, works tirelessly for our students and broader community, and is deeply committed to the long-term success of RE,” Fitzpatrick said. “We know she will always do what’s best for our school and students.”

“To see that kind of person leading our school is so important. You need someone equitable and fair to all; it’s what our school needs to cultivate the brightest and the best.”
Mya Wright ’17

Along with many other members of the RE community, Wright, now a PhD student at the University of Miami, greeted the news with elation. 

“To see that kind of person leading our school is so important,” Wright said. “You need someone equitable and fair to all; it’s what our school needs to cultivate the brightest and the best. She stepped in not only as an adult, but as a mother figure; she took me under her wing. She wanted to make sure no student was left behind. That speaks volumes about her character. You have to be the best to lead the best.”

Putting students first
A framed picture in Rodriguez’s office reads “Stay humble.” There is also an old issue of Time magazine with a cover headline that reads: “The Power of Joy.” Rodriguez’s colleagues say she possesses humility and joy in abundance. During her tenure on the Everglades Campus, Rodriguez taught at least one English class every year. She helped create the middle school advisory program, led tours of the middle school for prospective families, and made frequent home visits to students struggling during the pandemic (meeting with them masked and outside). After a year in the La Brisa administrative house as the interim head, Rodriguez decided to move back to the Pagoda. She wanted to be closer to students and more accessible to teachers in the traditional center of campus.

“Rachel’s very inclusive,” Chief Operating Officer and Interim Head of the Upper School David Clark ’86 said. “She cares so much about making sure that everyone around her gets what they need, the support they need … Her empathy for the wellbeing of children is ingrained in her. You can feel it when you talk to her. You can feel it when she talks to students. You can feel it when she’s out there.

“She’s always in the moment. She wants to make sure she hears you, she listens to you, she supports you, and she does the same with the faculty and kids.”

Clark arrived to Ransom Everglades at the same time that Rodriguez took over as Interim Head of School, and they immediately connected. They work together daily and communicate constantly. Clark said Rodriguez matches her kindness with extraordinary dedication and determination to get the job done. In fact, another framed picture in Rodriguez’s office reads, “Dream big.”

“She ultimately is a person that will put in whatever time is needed to ensure that the success of our school is paramount,” Clark said. “I can’t say enough about how I appreciate working with her and teaming with her.”
Boston beginnings
Born in Boston, Rachel Rodriguez spent her earliest years in student housing at Brandeis University, where her parents resided as her father worked toward his PhD. Rodriguez recalls joyful hours reading and writing with her father, who served as a university professor at two colleges and also worked as a policymaker in Washington, D.C. Now 87, he continues his career, working at a non-profit that helps bring judges and scientific experts together; his latest interest is examining the impact of artificial intelligence. 

Like many children at six or seven years old, Rodriguez aspired to great things – and she also loved her dolls. When her paternal grandmother offered to knit her an outfit for one of the dolls, Rodriguez requested a pilot’s outfit.

“Nana said, ‘Rachel, oh no, girls can’t be pilots,’” Rodriguez recalled. “And I looked at her and said, ‘My daddy says I can be whatever I want to be.’ She said, ‘No, you can’t be a pilot.’ I said, ‘Well, don’t knit me anything then, because I want to be a pilot.’”

A few years later, Rodriguez’s grandmother relented and knitted the pilot’s outfit.

Rodriguez’s father not only encouraged his daughter and her siblings to work toward meaningful careers, he expected it. He laid out an aspirational road map that his daughter was happy to follow.

“My dad never made any excuse for anything we did,” Rodriguez said. “We had to be accountable. We had to be independent. He was very influential on me, because of his insatiable thirst for learning and intellectual curiosity.”

“The culture of a school is everything, and relationships are the basis for educational passions. You never know what you are going to say to a child that will stay with them, whether it is positive or negative.”
Rachel Rodriguez, Head of School

Off to South Florida
Despite her early pilot ambitions, Rodriguez had not settled on a career plan when she arrived for her first year at the University of Rhode Island. A visit to her mother in South Florida persuaded her that college would be more enjoyable in warm weather and sunshine, so she decided to transfer.

She enrolled at Florida International University and took a part-time job at a nearby gymnastics school. Rodriguez paid off her college bills by taking advantage of skills she learned from years of gymnastics lessons as a child.

She had no idea training young gymnasts would help her discover her passion.

“What I found in gymnastics wasn’t that I loved gymnastics,” she said, “but I loved teaching. That was kind of my ‘aha’ moment.”

She also met her future husband, Jose Rodriguez, around that time. After graduating from FIU, Rachel Rodriguez taught at two elementary schools in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools system. By the time she began studying for a master’s degree in English education at Nova Southeastern University, she was married and had two small boys – Christopher Rodriguez ’10 and Alec Rodriguez ’14.
Those years, she said, went by in a blur.

She recalled that her husband, who worked as an executive for a major corporation, offered plenty of support to help her navigate the busy and challenging days. He would take the boys every Friday night while she graded papers and did her master’s coursework into the evenings. She would attend classes at Nova on Saturdays, reuniting with her family at dinner, and then would work until noon on Sunday.

With her husband’s encouragement, her career advanced rapidly. She wrote a curriculum for students to learn to read through the study of science. She spent a year training teachers to implement national standards into their instructional practice. Then, after earning her master’s degree, she took a job as the English Department Chair at Southwood Middle School, where she taught gifted students.

“I loved what I was doing,” Rodriguez said. “During my 15 years at Miami-Dade County Public Schools, what I realized was that the culture of a school is everything, and relationships are the basis for educational passions. You never know what you are going to say to a child that will stay with them, whether it is positive or negative. You have to watch your words carefully – words matter.”

A former student at Southwood, Alexandra (Lopez) De Leo ’10, recalls that her former English teacher constantly challenged her to improve her writing through countless essays. Those myriad essays meant the work never really stopped for Rodriguez.

“She was always taking work home with her,” her son Christopher Rodriguez said. “That was very common. I remember going home, the family would be watching TV, and she would be sitting on the couch with a stack of essays going through them. The sheer amount of hours that she works – her work ethic is incredible.”

As the English Department Chair, Rodriguez taught English to more than 210 middle schoolers in six classes each semester. She made every student complete a formal essay every six weeks. She carried student papers to her boys’ soccer games and tennis matches, and even to the hair salon.

And that’s how she ended up at Ransom Everglades.
“I remember going home, the family would be watching TV, and she would be sitting on the couch with a stack of essays going through them. The sheer amount of hours that she works – her work ethic is incredible.”
Christopher Rodriguez ’10 on his mother, Rachel Rodriguez

Discovering RE
Rodriguez was awaiting an appointment at a small salon in Pinecrest fully absorbed in grading the English essays stacked on her lap. Shelly Stamler, assistant director of the Ransom Everglades Middle School, entered the salon, and the papers caught her eye. Impressed to see such dedication, Stamler – also an English teacher – introduced herself.

They talked for a long time, and Stamler decided then and there that Rodriguez needed to work at Ransom Everglades. “She was so intelligent and insightful about the curriculum, and she cared so much about kids, that I thought she would be great at RE,” Stamler said. She invited her to campus shortly thereafter, but did not have a job to offer at that time. A year later, she did have an opening, although it wasn’t an English teacher position.

Stamler had been promoted to Director of the Middle School. She wanted to bring in Rodriguez as her assistant. The Head of School at the time, Ellen Moceri, interviewed Rodriguez. Moceri, like Stamler, immediately sensed something special and offered Rodriguez the job.

“I thought she was going to bring a vitality to our leadership team, and a wisdom about middle school kids,” Moceri said. “Her knowledge and understanding from the very beginning struck me. I was also struck by her understanding of the mission of the school. She understood the motto ‘honor and excellence’ – that you can’t have excellence without honor.”

When Rodriguez arrived to the middle school, she made a difference from the start, particularly in the creation and implementation of the advisory program. “She was adamant about developing a robust program that would enrich the character development of the students as much as their intellectual development,” recalled faculty member Maria Eugenia Abrante. 

Rodriguez pursued the belief in lifelong learning instilled by her father by attending the National Middle School Conference and numerous workshops and conferences offered by the Southern Association of Independent Schools and the National Association of Independent Schools. In 2018, she completed a certificate in Advanced Education Leadership through the Harvard School of Professional Education. 

Rodriguez did not forget the exceptional students she had taught at Southwood Middle School, one of whom was De Leo. After Rodriguez had departed for Ransom Everglades, she stayed in touch with her former student, offering her support and encouragement. The daughter of a single mother, De Leo was touched by Rodriguez’s outreach. No one – besides her mother – had ever seen such potential in her. When she applied to a couple of independent schools and received offers of admission from both, she chose Ransom Everglades. 

As a ninth grader at RE, De Leo immediately felt at home at the upper school, challenged and surrounded by bright, inquisitive students and caring teachers. 

Late in her senior year, she was named valedictorian of RE’s Class of 2010. She attended Harvard College.

“Mrs. Rodriguez changed my life,” said De Leo, now a physician and Assistant Professor of Radiation Oncology at the University of Florida, and married to former classmate Edward De Leo ’10. “It made me feel very seen and special for her to have taken that notice of me. She gave me this gift that I will never be able to fully thank her for. It was a pivotal moment in my life.”

“Mrs. Rodriguez changed my life. It made me feel very seen and special for her to have taken that notice of me. She gave me this gift that I will never be able to fully thank her for. It was a pivotal moment in my life.”
Alexandra (Lopez) De Leo '10

Two years into her tenure at Ransom Everglades, Rodriguez assumed the head of the middle school post when Stamler took time off to care for her ailing mother. Stamler eventually returned, settling into the assistant role under Rodriguez.

“We loved working together,” Stamler said. “The entire day we kept each other laughing. We loved hanging out with the middle school kids. That was what we had at the middle school – the joy with the kids.”

After 16 years at the middle school, during which both of her sons attended and graduated from RE, Rodriguez decided to step back. She resigned from her post after the 2020-21 school year. She had been away from RE for not even a year when she heard from members of the Ransom Everglades board of trustees, who wanted her to return as interim head of school while a permanent head was sought.

She loved the idea of going back during an important and transitional time at the institution that had meant so much to her and her family. But as the months went by, and as she worked with Clark, the RE faculty, students and the leadership team, she was reminded of the power and unity of the Ransom Everglades community.

As spring of 2023 approached, it became apparent that she and the board of trustees wanted the same thing: for her to remain at the helm at Ransom Everglades.

That, Moceri said, was great news for the entire school community.

“She is kind, calm and competent,” Moceri said. “That kind of combination soothes the waters, keeps things going very smoothly … and makes it a welcoming place. That’s her great strength: She knows how to make people feel welcomed and valued.”
Founded in 1903, Ransom Everglades School is a coeducational, college preparatory day school for grades 6 - 12 located on two campuses in Coconut Grove, Florida. Ransom Everglades School produces graduates who "believe that they are in the world not so much for what they can get out of it as for what they can put into it." The school provides rigorous college preparation that promotes the student's sense of identity, community, personal integrity and values for a productive and satisfying life, and prepares the student to lead and to contribute to society.