Red-Grover. Red-Grover.

Grover Cleveland students join fray protesting turnaround plans

Michelle Robertson, an assistant principal and English teacher at Grover Cleveland High School, defends the school at a hearing about the city's "turnaround" plans in Queens.

Rather than filing through metal detectors when they arrive at school Thursday morning, students from Grover Cleveland High School plan to line up around the school’s perimeter, locking hands in a “human chain.”

They are hoping the display of unity will do what weeks of hearings and meetings have not — convince city officials to reverse plans to overhaul their school.

The purpose of the 7 a.m. march, according to senior class president Diana Rodriguez, is for students to demonstrate their passion for Grover Cleveland in the face of the city’s plans to close the school, change its name, and remove some teachers via a federal reform model called “turnaround.”

“There are teachers here I love so much, they’ve been teaching for 10, 20, 30 years, one for over 40 years,” Rodriguez said. City officials “think they’re saving money, but it’s just going to worsen the problem. Getting rid of 50 percent of our staff and turning around and swapping principals and teachers from school to school doesn’t solve the problem itself, it just extends it even more.”

Students will hold hands and form a chain around the perimeter of the school, then march in a circle holding signs they’ve made for the occasion or saved from last year, when they held a similar protest, she said.

Students originally rallied around Grover Cleveland last year when the city put the school on a list of schools it was considering closing because of poor performance. In May 2011 the city announced it would keep the school open for at least three more years and hire an Educational Partnership Organization to run it using millions of federal school improvement funds. Last month, Mayor Bloomberg announced that he would switch the school to the more aggressive “turnaround” model instead.

Rodriguez said the school environment has improved since Denise Vittor took over as principal at the beginning of the year and placed more emphasis on Advanced Placement courses, extracurricular activities, and ways to improve the school while saving money.

Vittor came to Grover Cleveland from a stint as principal of Queens Vocational High School. She was pulled from that school so it could also qualify for federal improvement funds, but the city said last month it was making so little progress that it would not be selected for turnaround.

“We’re sending a message out to the DOE, Chancellor Walcott, Mayor Bloomberg, trying to show the unity of my school and the other schools as well,” Rodriguez said. “Now that we have a new principal, we obviously need more time to show we are improving.”

Earlier this week dozens of students and teachers from Queens schools on the turnaround list, including Grover Cleveland, spoke out against the city’s plan at a meeting held by Queens Borough President Helen Marshall.

In a speech that received a standing ovation from many audience members, Michelle Robertson, an assistant principal and English teacher at Grover Cleveland, said the turnaround would discount the efforts of teachers who have devoted decades to the school and regularly work on Saturdays, tutoring students from the school’s relatively large population of English Language Learners (roughly 22 percent of the school’s 2,000 students are ELLs).

“I am not worried about my job,” she told the crowd of more than 60 families and educators who packed the Queens Borough Hall meeting room. “Yes, we know we have issues; children come into us with issues that we are not equipped to deal with. But I don’t want to hear excuses from my teachers, because I believe we can do it.”

Student activist

With Townsend Harris in turmoil over interim principal, one student quietly takes a leading role

PHOTO: The Classic
Alex Chen walks the hallway during a student sit-in he helped organize at Townsend Harris High School.

While students across the nation have taken to the streets to protest President Trump, some are fighting battles closer to home. Just ask Alex Chen, the student union president at Townsend Harris High School who is helping to lead a high-profile fight against Interim Acting Principal Rosemarie Jahoda.

Chen spent much of his February break rallying fellow students, alumni and parents from the elite Queens high school to demonstrate in front of City Hall on Friday, asking the city to remove Jahoda from consideration for the permanent post. The controversy has put the 17-year-old in the uncomfortable position of going against his school’s top official.

But Chen insists this isn’t a student vs. principal situation.

“It might have felt like that sometimes, but I don’t really see it that way. I see it more as a community that’s rising up,” he said.

Opposition has mounted against Jahoda since September, when she stepped in to lead the school. More than 3,500 people, including self-identified parents and alumni, have signed a petition against her, claiming that she has harassed faculty, changed course offerings without proper input and that she has been “aloof or even combative” toward students.

In a statement, Jahoda said: “While I am frustrated by many of these inaccurate allegations, I remain 100% focused on serving students and families at Townsend Harris and working to move the school community forward.”

Meanwhile, Chen has been thrust into the spotlight. In December, during a student sit-in he helped organize, he had a tense standoff with Deputy Superintendent Leticia Pineiro.

“How are your teachers being harassed? I’m curious,” the superintendent quipped to Chen in a livestream broadcast by the student newspaper. “You’re speaking and I believe people should speak from fact. I’m a factual person.”

Chen spoke slowly, his voice a near whisper. Even when the superintendent suggested Chen had invaded her personal space, Chen stayed quiet and calm.

“I really just wanted to be able to communicate with her,” he later told Chalkbeat.

He returned to class, replaying the scene in his head and wondering whether he had handled it right. When he walked in the door, his classmates burst into applause.

“He’s become this symbol for everyone involved. And I think he earned it,” said Brian Sweeney, an English teacher and newspaper advisor who has Chen in his journalism class. “When you’re in that video with everyone watching, and you’re willing to keep talking and keep saying what you think … there’s a lot of trust for everyone involved.”

Since the sit-in, the School Leadership Team at Townsend took the unusual step of making Chen a co-chair of the board, made up of teachers, parents and union reps.

“I believe it was a matter of trust and productivity. We needed co-chairs who could move forward with the issues at the table, rather than be stuck in tension,” Chen said.

Even while he fights to make sure Jahoda isn’t appointed permanently, Chen said he has maintained a “very professional relationship” with her. In SLT and student union meetings where Jahoda is present, Chen said he makes an effort to “stick to the agenda.”

“We still have to keep the school running,” he said. “In the hallways, I’ll say good morning. I’ll say hello. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

The Department of Education opened applications for a permanent principal on Feb. 1 and said the process takes up to 90 days. The pushback against Jahoda means many are watching the department’s next moves. This week, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz wrote a letter to Chancellor Carmen Fariña about the matter.

“Accusations and troubling accounts are occurring on a daily basis,” she wrote. “The students of our system deserve to know that the DOE is providing the tools, atmosphere and attention needed to fulfill our responsibilities to them.”

Chen has responsibilities of his own. At home in Hollis Hills, he helps take care of his younger sister and is expected to finish his chores. He’s looking for a job to have a bit of his own money. And with senior year winding down, he spends a lot of time chasing scholarships. Chen hopes to study business at University of Pennsylvania, though lately many people have asked him whether he’ll go into politics.

“I don’t think I will for now, because there’s a lot that goes on in politics that kind of disturbs me,” he said. “After high school, after college, after your youth, it seems like people [tend] to be more self-interested than to help in the community.”

under study

No longer at the bottom: These 20 schools are Tennessee’s model for turnaround

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Whitehaven Elementary School students work on a robotics project. The Memphis school has moved off of the state's list of lowest-performing schools.

When Education Commissioner Candice McQueen gave a stinging assessment this week of Tennessee’s school turnaround work, she cited a small number of schools as the exception.

Twenty have improved enough in the last five years to move off of the state’s list of “priority schools” that are in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent.

Of those, the State Department of Education has conducted case studies of 10 former priority schools in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Hardeman County:

  • Chickasaw Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Douglass K-8, Shelby County Schools
  • Ford Road Elementary, Shelby County Schools
  • Gra-Mar Middle, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Hamilton Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Treadwell Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, Hamilton County Schools
  • Whiteville Elementary, Hardeman County Schools
  • City University Boys Preparatory High, Shelby County Schools
  • Springdale Elementary, Shelby County Schools

The first six are part of state-supported innovation zones in Memphis and Nashville. Two schools — in Chattanooga and Hardeman County — have received federal school improvement grants. The last two did not receive federal or state interventions but were studied because their scores improved at a faster rate than 85 percent of schools in 2015.

Ten other former priority schools, all in Shelby County Schools in Memphis, have improved with only local or philanthropic support. The state plans to examine these closer in the coming months:

  • Alcy Elementary
  • Cherokee Elementary, Innovation Zone
  • Hickory Ridge Middle
  • Manassas High
  • Manor Lake Elementary
  • Memphis Academy of Science & Engineering High (charter school)
  • Memphis School of Excellence High (charter school)
  • Oakhaven Middle
  • South Park Elementary
  • Whitehaven Elementary
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A classroom at Ford Road Elementary in Memphis, which is among those that have exited the state’s list of lowest performing schools.

McQueen told lawmakers Tuesday that it’s “a little embarrassing” that only 16 percent of priority schools have moved off of the state’s 2012 and 2014 lists that identify 126 failing schools.

The case studies, in part, have informed the school improvement component of Tennessee’s new plan for its schools under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

“… We have learned that a combination of school leadership, effective teaching with a focus on depth of instruction around standards, and services focused on non-academic supports has led to strong outcomes in these schools,” McQueen said in a statement Wednesday.

Tennessee’s proposed new plan for turnaround work would gives more authority to local districts to make their own improvements before the state-run Achievement School District steps in.

One ASD school — Brick Church in Nashville — also has moved off of the state’s priority list, but was excluded from the state’s analysis because there were not enough years of test data to compare since its takeover by the state-run district.

“What we can’t do as a state is support — in terms of funding and time — district interventions that don’t work,” McQueen said. “We have to learn from what is working because we know we have much more work to do and many more students that have need.”

Chalkbeat reporter Grace Tatter contributed to this report.