The Cincinnatus Q&A WITH Jacquelyn Rowedder

Jackie Rowedder is principal of the Cincinnati Public Schools Academy of World Languages and 2014 winner of the James N. Jacobs Outstanding CPS Administrator Award, presented by the Cincinnatus Association. Interview conducted March 2014.

How did you come to be an educator? What inspired you to this profession?

I’ve grown up surrounded by educators in my family. My father was my superintendent from the time I entered school through my graduation in high school. I have aunts and uncles in education. I’ve been impacted by teachers and coaches all of my life and I learned how important that role can be for a student. This is a profession where you have the opportunity to significantly impact the lives of people and as a principal you can multiply those opportunities every day.

If you could snap your fingers and change one thing in public education, what would it be?

TESTING! I think holding schools and principals and teachers accountable for our work is extremely appropriate and important. However, the mandates that come from holding those people accountable come without supports or resources. We spend weeks during a school year testing and re-testing students in the name of student achievement. The test scores do not always reflect the work or growth that a student demonstrates or the efforts that staff put into the students. In education we base student achievement on one test score which just isn’t reliable. If I could change it, I would dramatically decrease the number of hours spent formally testing and dramatically increase accountability for learning that focus on student growth and authentic assessments.

Let’s turn to the Academy of World Languages. What’s its mission? Who are its students? What prompted CPS to start it and sustain it?

Our mission: “The Academy of World Languages will prepare students for a globally-linked society through excellence in world languages, cultural studies, and high academic standards.”

Our students are representative of nearly every continent in the world. As of today, we have 67 students from Africa, three from Europe, 102 from Asia, 388 from North America and two from South America.  Fifty-six percent of our students are English Language Learners. We speak over 30 languages, with the top five being Arabic, Sonike, Spanish, Nepali and Wolof, excluding English. 

Our native English speakers come to AWL to learn a foreign language, starting in kindergarten. This was the original intent for the AWL program, created by Superintendent James Jacobs. He wanted to create a school where students could learn other languages and appreciate other cultures. I hope he would be proud of what AWL looks like today. 

It must be fun to just walk down the hall. Is there a more multi-cultural place in all of Cincinnati? Describe it for us?

I can’t imagine a more diverse setting on a daily basis. It is definitely a fun environment. The students amaze me every day. They find ways to communicate with each other and learn to enjoy each other’s company without letting language become a barrier. Veteran students help newcomer students in classes and in the environment. It’s difficult to put into words. You really have to come and visit us to understand.

You meet students from families from all over the world. That has to be interesting, but also enlightening. What have you learned about American education in contrast to education around the world from this experience? 

The U.S. system of education is definitely different from many other countries. A major difference that I have witnessed is that ALL children in the U. S. are educated. It’s mandatory. This is not necessarily the case in many other countries, where gender, race, and socio-economic status determine the level of education you are allowed to attain. 

Many of our students’ families come to us as refugees from war torn countries. I can’t imagine the experiences they have survived in order to get to the United States. Often times their education has been inconsistent or interrupted. They are excited to have the opportunity to come to school and are grateful.

Could you share a favorite story from your work? 

Our students are my favorite story. They are growing into amazing people every day and getting the opportunity to watch them progress is incredible. Every individual has a powerful story to tell. All we have to do is listen. 

One story that comes to mind is when two new students came to us from Africa. They were kindergartners and had never been in a school. They had just come to Cincinnati and were brought to school. Both were frightened and had no idea how to behave in school let alone what anyone was saying to them.

They spent most of that year crying and sitting on my lap, not understanding English or American culture. As third graders, those same two students scored two of the highest scores on their State Reading Assessment. These are my favorite stories, the ones that show how resilient and hard working our students are regardless of the adversity from where they come.

What should the average American know about ELL students that perhaps we don’t know?

What amazes me most about our ELL students is their capacity for language learning. Many of them speak multiple languages already. English has to be one of the most difficult languages to learn. We have so many rules and inconsistencies in those rules. Yet, these students, with the appropriate support and time, master this language as well.

What is unfortunate is that no matter what level of English or how interrupted their education might be they still are held accountable for testing by federal law. This puts them at a serious disadvantage.

What’s next for you?

I love AWL. I’ve made a commitment to this program and want to help AWL become the very best school it can be. Every year the student population changes just a little bit and adds new challenges for us to tackle. This is my home and the people here are my family. 

You can’t be principal all the time? What’s the weekend in like for Jacquelyn Rowedder? Who is the Ms. Rowedder students don’t know?

I love to be active. I play golf, volleyball, soccer, softball occasionally, and enjoy a nice jog now and then. I often run into our families around the soccer pitch and they are not surprised to see me there. I also have a 4 year old Vizsla and a 3 year old nephew. Both keep me very busy and entertained. 

When it comes to public education, our members (Cincinnatus) want to be involved, want to help.  Any counsel for us on where to start, what to do?

Schools are always looking for community support in a variety of ways. I think you have to know what you are willing to do before you contact a school so that when you do talk to them you can give them your parameters, your comfort level. Then call your school! Call any school and let them know what you’re willing to do. 

Of course, we’d love for you all to call us (363-7800, Jill Smith, Resource Coordinator). ☺ We are always looking for volunteer tutors, adopt a class partners, support for field trips and school events, and just all around help. We also have our annual International Festival coming up on May 17, 2014. We would love to see the Cincinnatus members stop in and visit our cultural event.