Certifiably Crazy?

Students and teachers have rallied around Rodriguez.
Troy Fields

It was never Rachel Rodriguez's dream to be a high school teacher. She just happened to be good at it.

On August 15, four days before the new school year, the five-year veteran was organizing leadership meetings at Reagan High. As head of her school's Professional Development Action Team, the 35-year-old oversaw the meetings, prepared PowerPoint presentations and distributed handouts outlining the team's teaching approach for the coming year.

That afternoon, Rodriguez stopped by the Houston Independent School District office on Richmond Avenue to submit her certification renewal application, as she did every year.

It was supposed to be a quick routine errand -- not a bureaucratic quagmire. A clerk looked at Rodriguez's transcript and said there was a problem. The teacher was ushered in to meet with HISD certification officer Sheila Warren, who told Rodriguez that the district could not credit her for a class she took in July 2001 -- and couldn't renew her teaching permit.

Rodriguez asked about making up the credits, expecting to hear a simple solution to a simple problem. Instead, Warren's solution was for Rodriguez to just quit teaching.

While state legislators sweat over an estimated shortage of up to 40,000 teachers, HISD dropped Rodriguez's benefits and halved her salary because a state policy says she took a class one month before she should have. Rodriguez, who was already working two nights as a restaurant hostess to supplement her pay, has picked up 20 more hours at the restaurant. But she fears she may have to quit her first love: teaching.

Rodriguez had been taking summer certification classes as part of a statewide "deficiency" program. It allows uncertified teachers in the classroom at full pay as long as they complete 24 credit hours of education in three years. Those teachers submit their transcripts for renewal each year.

According to state policy, a teacher must take the classes after their contract is finalized, which is on the first day of the school year. So even though Rodriguez signed her contract July 13, it wasn't officially renewed until August 10 -- meaning the class she took in July wouldn't count toward her renewal in this school year.

Not believing that the district would let her go over such a technicality, Rodriguez ultimately got Warren to file her appeal to the state Board for Educator Certification, which was denied. Rodriguez sought help from her union and tried to get answers from the state board. She calls it entering an "information blackout," where her union was powerless and the district and the state board each referred her to the other one.

And she was stuck squarely in the middle.

"Hello, just tell me what I have to do," Rodriguez asked everyone she could. "Do I need to drive to Austin? Do you need my first-born child? Just tell me what it is."

Rodriguez, who is single, never knew what she wanted to be when she grew up. But while pursuing a dual degree in Spanish and political science from the University of Houston, she became fascinated with media stories about the condition of the state's public education system.

"I think that education is basically…the key to success," Rodriguez says. "It helps you understand people. It helps you get along with people."

So heeding the call, Rodriguez entered the district's deficiency program and became a Spanish teacher at Booker T. Washington High School north of the Heights. She paid for her UH certification classes. Even though she was teaching high school Spanish, she wound up taking classes that had nothing to do with her specialty or even her grade level. To the district, it's the hour credits that count, not the content.

So the Spanish teacher learned about teaching math to middle schoolers, but she didn't care. She got involved in her job, staying after school to help her students and taking summer training and leadership seminars.

As a favor to the former principal, Rodriguez began teaching French last year, when a teacher left in the middle of the school year. New principal Robert Chavarria asked her to remain.

Three years into her career, HISD shelled out $100,000 for an advertising campaign to fill 1,800 teaching vacancies. "Will you be my teacher?" implored sweet-faced kids on billboards. The campaign worked. The district hired twice as many teachers in 2001 as in 2000.

But Texas schools are expected to grow by 70,000 students this year, and the statewide teacher shortage could reach 50,000 by 2010, according to a recent state certification board study.

So it was a surprise to Rodriguez that she would be so easily asked to leave. But the head of her union, the Houston Federation of Teachers, says it's just another case of knee-jerk bureaucracy.

"There are a lot of things in certification which tend to make little sense," Gayle Fallon says.

Fallon points out that the state certification board consists entirely of administrators, not teachers.

"Obviously, they don't think we can be trusted to govern our own profession…If they did, we wouldn't have some of these stupid rules," Fallon says. "She's been ripped off…The problem is, there's no legal remedy for it, because what you have is a bureaucracy dealing with another bureaucracy."

Patricia Madison, the state board officer who rejected Rodriguez's appeal, says the district is responsible for informing their applicants about requirements. But Fallon says the district puts that responsibility on the teacher, not the district.

"It's government's chronic defense," Fallon says.

There is also miscommunication within the district. Heather Browne, HISD's spokesperson, denies the district ever told Rodriguez to resign. But Warren says she did. Warren also says that Rodriguez spent four years as a "teacher's aide," when Rodriguez was classified by the state as a "critical shortage substitute" and performed the same duties as a regular teacher. Rodriguez has asked for copies of the appeal Warren filed on her behalf but has yet to receive them.

Now classified as a substitute teacher, Rodriguez is making $300 a week -- less than half of what she made before. She has no benefits. She doesn't know how long she can keep it up.

"A girl's gotta eat," she laughs. But she's somber about the thoughts of leaving education. "For a while there, I was thinking, 'Am I nuts?'…because that's how I was made to feel."

Fellow teachers have provided support. Mike Webster, another educator at Reagan, sent a faculty-wide e-mail asking for donations. He and Jessica Holt collected $1,500 in four days. Webster feels most of the contributors share his sentiment: "Why does a good teacher have to leave for such idiotic reasons?"

"She's held in high regard by her co-workers and staff," says principal Chavarria. "She's a definite asset to the building."

Some of her students cried when Rodriguez told them she may have to leave.

"She doesn't really deserve this," says one student, 15-year-old sophomore Mayra Garrido. "What they're doing to her is wrong."

Garrido describes Rodriguez's teaching style as simultaneously fun and strict.

"Sometimes we even talk to her like friends and everything," Garrido says.

Lauren Gomez, 16, says her mother was just as outraged as she was to hear that Rodriguez may have to quit. Every day after school, Gomez's mother asks her how her day went, and Gomez always has a good story about Rodriguez.

"We told her that we're not going to let her go anywhere," Gomez says.

But HISD's Warren says that even though Rodriguez may be a well-liked teacher, she failed to follow the rules. She likens Rodriguez's situation to that of a popular teacher-in-training who fails a certification test.

Rodriguez can make up her certification class this year and apply for renewal next year. However, with the steep cut in pay, she says she can't afford the $1,000 for required courses.

As she wrestles with her dilemma, dozens of students have asked her, "Will you be my teacher?"

For now, Rodriguez doesn't have that answer.

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