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John Rodrigues: “How this high school dropout ended up at Harvard”

John Rodrigues (TFA Bay Area ’08) is fighting to make a better world for kids with dyslexia.

He’s the founder and executive director of ThinkLexic, an organization that’s addressing the underlying social issues of dyslexia through awareness, programs, advocacy and policy efforts — and offering a more enlightened approach to ability and intelligence.

Check out our interview with John and how he found himself at Harvard despite having dropped out of high school.

Explain what led you to care deeply about educational equity. What personal values, experiences or beliefs inform this?

I was the dumb kid. My teachers, my parents, everyone agreed.  

“Stupid.”

“Don’t waste your time on him.”

“Not everyone is book smart.”

I couldn’t read or write, but unbeknownst to all, I had a learning disability: dyslexia.

The truth of the matter is that I simply think (and learn) in a different way. People like me can excel if given the right tools. That’s how this high school dropout ended up at Harvard.

Dyslexia is estimated to affect 15 percent of people, but it frequently goes unidentified.

Some say teachers were just harsher back then, but I’ve met so many dyslexic kids who are made to feel unintelligent in the classroom. It’s still happening.

I wasn’t the dumb kid — I was the dyslexic kid. The way they were teaching me wasn’t the way I learned. Reaching these kids and saving them the heartache is what motivates my work.

How has LEE helped you in your mission to end educational inequity?

Some good ideas stay just that — good ideas. But LEE has given our young organization — ThinkLexic — the tools we need to really take our work to the next level.

LEE’s greatest resource is its people and their collective expertise and wisdom. Through the Venture Fund & Fellowship, we’ve sharpened our entire organizational strategy, refined our theory of change, and taken the necessary steps to broaden the scope of our impact.

There’s a steep learning curve in this kind of work, and LEE has been an invaluable guide. I’d say it’s like we envisioned a place in the sky where we wanted to venture, and when LEE came around, they not only helped us chart the path, but they also gave us the rocket fuel we needed to break through the atmosphere.

Tell us about your current role. What’s a typical day like? What is the impact you’re having on educational equity?

As executive director of ThinkLexic, my day starts at around 5 AM. I take time in the morning to help my four-year-old daughter get ready for preschool — we have our own morning routine together.

Throughout the day, I have meetings with staff or advisors in which we gauge progress on various goals like fundraising, programs and partnerships.

On an event day, I might travel to present to a group of 100 administrators in special education, a group of 200 special education teachers, and a group of 80 students with learning disabilities. We’re working to scale these kinds of events and impact educational equity for students with learning disabilities on a national scale.

What is your vision for ending educational inequity in the U.S.?

We think educational inequity is a multifaceted problem that requires work from a number of vantage points. The issue of students with learning disabilities intersects with issues of race, gender, and socioeconomic background, while also striking at the heart of what public education means for all students.

People with learning disabilities need to be leading the way and accounting for the nuances within our own community. That is, to care about educational equity for students with dyslexia also means caring about, for instance, the school-to-prison pipeline (where illiteracy and recidivism are tragically entangled) or the distressing rates at which students go unidentified for dyslexia in underserved schools. All of the issues are connected, and as an organization, we’re invested in all of them.

What do you see as your role in achieving this vision?

The issue of learning disabilities in education has been expertly researched. It’s also a lived experience — one that is felt by millions of individuals and families across our nation.

We envision ThinkLexic as an impact-oriented vehicle that harnesses the research with action to change. We hope to improve education for students with dyslexia in measurable ways.

Beyond seeking educational equity, ThinkLexic is also challenging everyone to rethink the nature of intelligence and pointing to an approach that we think can better serve our collective future. We hope to give back to LEE what it has given to us — joining the educational equity think tank to help launch emerging organizations in service of what is right.