Driven by difficulty, Philadelphia student shines

Friday November 18, 2016 Kristen Graham profiles Jailene Rodriguez, a senior at Olney Charter High School who was recently honored as a Philadelphia Education Fund Rising Star.

Jailene Rodriguez's life has been studded with difficult things: deaths and deportations, incarcerations and transience.

Throughout, one thing has been constant - her determination to turn hardship into something better.

Rodriguez, 17, is a straight-A senior at Olney Charter High School, an athlete, a young lady with a firm handshake, an easy smile, and an unwillingness to settle for good enough.

No one in her family finished high school. She knows she is headed to college and, she hopes, a career in medicine.

"Some people, they just give up," she said. "That's not me."

The driving force in her life is her father, who was first sent to prison for selling drugs when she was still in diapers. He came home when she was 9, but after a few months, he was reincarcerated.

Rodriguez is good at math - Advanced Placement statistics good - and constantly goes over the numbers in her head. Her father was sentenced to 25 years in prison, and has served seven. She'll be 35 when he gets out.

That he has missed her softball games, birthday parties, and every parent-teacher conference is both heartbreak and inspiration to her. They remain close, messaging each other daily, and talking by phone when they can.

"He always motivates me. He tells me he doesn't want me to be like him, to be like the rest of my family," she said. "I want . . . to prove that you can do it, to be a role model."

She already is.

Rodriguez was named a "Rising Star" at the EDDYs, the Philadelphia Education Fund's awards ceremony. Her father cried when she told him about the $500 award, given this year to her and Saviona Goode of Bartram High, another strong city student, in recognition of their excellence. Rodriguez's mother, who never attends school events, came to the Center City party and treated her daughter to dinner at an Applebee's.

Those who know Rodriguez well are not surprised by her triumph.

Ellen Green, Olney's director of curriculum and instruction, is wowed by her.

"She is gifted and talented in so many ways," Green said. "She has such resilience. She has come through as a shining star."

Rodriguez was born in Philadelphia, one of eight children between her mother and father. She moved around a lot - she attended five city elementary schools that she can remember.

She realized early that she could earn good grades with very little effort. But that wasn't enough - she wanted high A's, and hard work never scared her.

When she was 9, her stepfather was arrested and deported to the Dominican Republic. Her mother said the family would move there with him.

They moved into a small wooden house, Rodriguez remembers, six people squeezed into one bed, with herself and two other sisters crowded into a baby's crib.

"It was scary," she said. "You don't have the opportunities there that you have here."

She worried she might never get back to Philadelphia, but after eight months, the family returned after her father was arrested.

Rodriguez said she felt alone. She would lock herself in her room, weeping, despairing.

Eventually, she found her focus. A number of relatives and friends in the Dominican Republic died; she wonders if they would still be alive if better medical care had been available to them.

"I can save so many lives," she said.

And now, instead of feeling alone, she is grateful for a supportive community.

"If you reach out, you'll find that there's always someone who will care," she said. "I'm going to use all the help I can."

Rodriguez has hardly ever gotten a B in high school. She plays softball and volleyball, participates on the debate team, and is a frequent visitor to Olney's College Access Center, run by the Education Fund.

She also balances a stack of outside responsibilities. Her mother works overnight at a bar, and Rodriguez cares for her younger siblings - 9, 13 and 14 - when their mother is away. It's not always easy to study at her crowded house, but she manages.

She got a taste of a different kind of life at Ithaca College during a summer program there this year.

"It was so peaceful," she said. "You can hear yourself speak. It was clean, and it was lovely."

Her mother is scared about her potentially moving far away, but Rodriguez knows it's going to be OK - great, even.

"As soon as I get to college, I'm just going to love it," she said.

Madeline Birkner, a college-access program coordinator at Olney, first met Rodriguez when the teen was a sophomore. Rodriguez declared her intentions early, inviting herself to a presentation she'd heard about that was given by representatives of elite colleges.

On a recent day, Birkner and Rodriguez sat opposite each other, going over a long list of potential schools, from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Rochester to West Chester and Bloomsburg Universities.

Rodriguez's finger stopped on Ursinus, which looked promising on a visit.

"It costs $60,000," she said. "That's not OK."

But Birkner reminded her that grants and scholarships could bring down the cost of any school, including her probable top two choices, Ursinus and Drexel.

Rodriguez couldn't help herself: she broke into a grin just thinking about what lies ahead of her.

"Jailene is programmed to expect the best from herself," Birkner said. "She has a chorus of voices around her: 'Do better than we did.' "

kgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-5146@newskag

www.philly.com/schoolfiles