While she was still in intensive care, less than a month before she died, Mayor Gavin Newsom awarded Zaida Teresa Rodriguez with the Administrator of the Year award.
“Now I have to really step it up,” her friend, Sheila Cabrera, recalled her saying.
Zaida, as she was known throughout the community, worked for 32 years in San Francisco schools, mostly in early education. Since 2003, she served as principal at both the Bryant and Mission Child Development Centers where she introduced a new curriculum that had been used almost exclusively in private schools because of the commitment and resources it requires. She passed away last May at the age of 56.
She worked closely with a growing community, helping families well beyond her duties, including finding jobs, buying clothes for children and even giving money.
“She created the school community as a home. Any organization nearby became part of the community,” said Raúl Chavez, who replaced Zaida as principal at the Bryant center.
Chavez met her as a youth worker at Las Americas, another child center in the Mission District, in the early 1990s. From that point, she became a role model, a mentor, a friend and a leader for him. “A visionary leader,” Chavez clarified. “She knew where she wanted to take us, and what was possible.”
He paused, then a flood of words – he wanted to impart to me, to the community, just how much she meant.
“She was awesome,” the 34-year-old said. “I could call her Mama Zaida, like a second mother. She was very meaningful to me,” his voice beginning to tremble slightly.
“And that’s her picture,” Chavez said with a heavy sigh.
A smile, nurturing and bright-eyed, greets you as you walk into the Bryant child center. Excited murmurs and the earnest imaginings of children immersed in play invite you into a room of miniature desks and small wonders. Tiny wooden cabinets ring and divide the room, housing puzzles, blocks, musical instruments and costumery.
Kids form their own circles of play, small groups deeply engaged in coloring or dissecting their shadows.
The smile is Zaida’s and the scene is her vision enacted, her memory preserved.
That same smile, infectious and calming, sits across the room – a smaller memorial strewn with delicate, pint-sized pine cones. And another picture of her over here, above the open wooden lockers filled with bright puffy coats and backpacks, her cheeks bunched high, eyes sparked and gleaming. Next to it sits a display board titled “Building Positive Relationships” with pictures of teachers, children and parents.
“She knew we could grow, and was never afraid to challenge us as teachers. At the same time, she challenged families to help them grow too,” said Chavez.
“She gave families hope,” said Cabrera, who works at the Mission Child Development Center and has known Zaida for close to two decades. “We found the ones that have the least are willing to give back the most.”
At both the Bryant and Mission centers, Zaida helped implement a variation of the Reggio Emilia curriculum, named after the town in Italy where it originated shortly after World War II.
The Reggio approach focuses on exploration and discovery, allowing the children to direct what they’d like to learn.
“Kids were really paying attention to shadows outside,” said Ana Fisher, a teacher at Bryant who worked with Zaida for over twenty years. “So we created a program where we explored shadows.” Bugs, frogs and hair have also proven popular subjects.
“It requires a lot of commitment from the staff, building relationships as teams, and a lot of professional development,” Cabrera said of the Reggio-inspired curriculum.
By all accounts, it was a challenge she was up to.
“She was very petite, but mighty,” said Cabrera, her eyes peeling up in remembrance. “Absolutely mighty. She had a very soft voice so she was nonthreatening, but very passionate about education and young children. She worked 10, 11 hour days…. Working at two full-time school sites is impossible.”
“She was strong with a big laugh, and charismatic,” Cabrera continued of her 4-foot-10 friend. “I used to say you’re such a good teacher because you’re so close to their size.”
Over 400 people attended her service in Walnut Creek, near her home, Cabrera said. “It would have been easily twice that if it had been held here.”
A tree planting and memorial was held at the two schools in the Mission on her birthday, June 22. The school communities shared stories of Zaida and a meal in celebration of her life.
For Zaida, the community and surroundings were crucial.
“The environment used to be plastic,” said Fisher, “now it’s real. We want children to feel at home – real plants, not plastic. And have it be inviting to the public.”
“Most Reggio-inspired schools are private, and have always had rich people funding them,” said Oscar Chavez, who started working at the Mission center in 1998, two years before Zaida began.
Now lead teacher at the school, Chavez continued, “She believed we could build something like that for our community. For the low-income families around here. She pulled strings and she inspired the staff, and then the district. It’s more widespread now.”
Zaida also helped found “Kin Start,” a program which brings grandparents into the classroom once a week to work with the children.
“Although she was tiny, she had all these great dreams and I think she left the foundation. The vision she started is still here,” said Chavez. “We’re going to keep her alive through her vision. Yes, we miss her physically. But spiritually she is still around with us.”
“The foundation here is so strong, this is how she lives,” Chavez continued. “Once you teach teachers, they always have that and can grow on their own; that was why professional development was so important to her.”
“She had a great influence on everyone,” Cabrera said, “and everyone here wants to continue to honor her.” She paused as her voice began to break and tears briefly flooded her eyes.
Friends and coworkers hope to have the Mission center renamed the Zaida T. Rodriguez Child Development Center by the end of the year. And there are plans to set up a more permanent memorial outside, next to the playground, where a plum tree will be planted in her honor, partly using funds from a gardening grant Zaida got from the city last year.
“She loved plums,” said Cabrera. “We’ll have kids planting flowers always.”