“I love the kids”

School safety officer Candi Rodriguez, right, receives a check for $10,000 from Paula Olsiewski, program director, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Photo: Emily Higginbotham
A school safety officer with more than 40 years on the job is recognized for her dedication and warm-hearted approach
by emily higginbotham

People have a lot of ideas about how to make schools safe, especially in the age of school shootings. There’s a reflex to install metal detectors, add guards and put up armor. But for 43 years, school safety agent Candi Rodriguez has used a different approach — one grounded in love, empathy and inclusion.

It’s how she’s kept the Joan of Arc School Complex on the Upper West Side — which houses Manhattan School for Children, Lafayette Academy and the Community Action School — one of the city’s safest. It’s how she’s become beloved by generations of students, parents and staff. And it’s how she caught the attention of the Fund for the City of New York, which is honoring Rodriguez with the Sloan Public Service Award for 2019.

Honoring a Lifetime Commitment

“They say it takes a community to raise and educate a child. In this instance, it takes a community to keep this school community safe,” said Georgia Boothe, who sits on the Fund’s awardee selection panel and serves as the vice president for Child Welfare and Family Services, during a ceremony at the complex Thursday morning. “Candi understands that. She understands that at the heart of how to do that is the ability to build relationships.”

Rodriguez was one of six city employees — out of work force of 300,000 — to be honored with the service award last week. The group included Gesille Dixon, New York Public Library; John Gallagher, New York City Department of Correction; Keith Kerman, New York City Department of Citywide Administrative Services; Joseph Marcellino, New York City Health and Hospitals; and Renee Parham, New York City Department of Housing Preservation & Development.

“Think about the odds. Six out of 300,000. We got it right,” said Mary McCormick, the president of the Fund. “In my time in charge of the Fund, I’ve seen that this city depends on people like Candi; people who are passionate, committed and caring.”

With the award, Rodriguez was presented with a check from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for $10,000.

“I don’t know what to say,” said Rodriguez, wearing her warm trademark smile, which was mentioned by many at Thursday’s ceremony. “It has been 43 wonderful years.”

A Role Model and a Friend

One after another, principals, teachers and students from the three schools spoke about Rodriguez and what her presence has meant in their lives and the lives of those in their school community. They painted the mother of three, and grandmother of three, who started at the complex in 1975, when it was just one school, as a professional who knows how to be stern when she needs to be and builds trust and respect through personal interaction with the students and staff.

“She is a familiar, friendly face welcoming young people who might be nervous about coming to school,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. “Her kindness and her warmth are infectious.”

The speakers talked about how Rodriguez makes everyone feel included, whether they be an outsider or someone with different needs. Community Action School teacher Thomas Chickery recalled his first time walking through the doors of the complex. He was nervous about his interview, and nervous, as boy from Dutchess County, at the prospect of teaching at a New York City public school. “People from the city are mean,” he joked. But Rodriguez put Chickery at ease.

“She made me feel like this was the right place for me before I even went into the interview,” Chickery said.

Greta Baier, a fifth grade student at Manhattan School for Children who uses a motorized scooter to get around, said Rodriguez always makes her feel good.

“We have a little joke where I might be coming from the elevator or going home from school and she’ll say, ‘Beep, beep!’ and I’ll,” Greta said, pausing to hit the horn on her scooter, mimicking the ‘beep, beep.”

Other students talked about Rodriguez as a role model, teaching them about hard work and dedication. Lafayette Academy student Zoe De Bernardo said Rodriguez shows what it means to be passionate about your work, and to do it with enthusiasm. Community Action School student Merveille Bollou said that thanks to Rodriguez she’s learned two lessons: to be grateful and take advantage of opportunities when they arise, and to take pride in her work.

Closing the ceremony, Rodriguez thanked the many people she’s worked with over four decades, especially the students. “I love the kids. That’s the only thing that has kept me here for 43 years,” she said. And with a smirk, she added, “Parents, I don’t know.”