The students at Lyman Hall Elementary School — almost all of whom are Latino, learning English as a second language and receiving free or reduced-price lunches — are just the kids new principal Angel Rodriguez longs to serve.
“If I had put pen to paper and I had written down exactly, line by line, what I imagined my dream school would be, it would be Lyman,” he said.
Rodriguez, 48, took over as principal this school year for Robert Wilson, who now serves as the principal of the new Cherokee Bluff Middle School in South Hall.
Rodriguez has spent more than two decades as an educator, most recently for Gwinnett County Schools as a high school assistant principal charged with overseeing discipline, attendance and other issues among another largely Latino student demographic.
“In my heart, I always wanted to come back to elementary (school),” where he started, Rodriguez said. “But I didn’t know what God had planned for me.”
There is one thing, however, Rodriguez was sure of: he wanted to retire in Hall County.
He and his wife, Tracy, are avid motorcyclists and often tour on their bikes through Hall and the Northeast Georgia mountains.
“I’ve been trying to get up here for years,” Rodriguez said. “This was my retirement plan. I thought it would be 10 years down the road.”
His affinity for Hall County also comes from the eight years he and his wife fostered children, two of whom they adopted.
Three of the five foster children placed long term with the Rodriguez family were from Hall families.
“So we came into the community for almost a decade,” Rodriguez said.
A fateful conversation last winter about job openings for educators led Rodriguez to discover the need to fill a principal’s position at Lyman Hall.
And when he began looking at the backgrounds and needs of most students, Rodriguez, whose parents are from Puerto Rico and Cuba, said he knew he’d hit on something big.
“I’m working with families that mirror my (upbringing),” he said.
The families of most students enrolled at Lyman are immigrants from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
“This is a resilient group of kids,” Rodriguez said. “We can’t even wrap our minds around what they’ve gone through.”
And it’s an “incredible opportunity I don’t want to waste …” he added.
Rodriguez said he always puts his faith and trust in the Lord, but the opportunity to lead Lyman Hall had him joking: “Alright, let me be more specific, I’m cool with your will God … but I feel this is the one.”
And the level of support from central office administration gives him the confidence he needs to succeed, Rodriguez said.
“Our Lyman Hall family is very excited to have Angel Rodriguez joining us,” Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said. “Not only does he possess unique professional experiences which equip him to lead Lyman, his personal story mirrors that of many of our Lyman students. He passionately believes in the power of education to provide opportunities in this country.”
Rodriguez is not like some educators who come from a long line of teachers.
His mother had only a kindergarten-level education, he said, and his father completed only first grade.
But both were hard working. And his mother was a curious soul, always reading and educating herself.
“I remember how much she valued education,” Rodriguez said, if only because of what she had missed out on. “She would also tell me, ‘If I had gone to school, I would have been a lawyer.’”
His family came to value education so much that a love of learning became a natural part of his childhood.
Rodriguez said that whenever an encyclopedia salesman rapped on the door of his home, which was common in his youth, they “always knew they had a sale at my house.”
All these years later, Rodriguez said he is amazed his life has taken him to Lyman, and he sees a compelling narrative taking shape.
“It would be a school like Lyman Hall serving them,” he said of his parents, if they were growing up in Hall County in this day and age. “I can’t believe I’m in this situation that I get to turn around and serve others in that way.”
The mission before him now is to empower Lyman students so they reach their full potential, which could set a precedent for their descendants, Rodriguez said.
“I don’t want anyone to feel … limited in what they are capable of,” he added. “Their success is going to have a generational impact.”