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Schooled in activism, Grover Cleveland grad aims for law school

Grover Cleveland High School student Diana Rodriguez spearheaded student protest against her school's closure.

Less than two weeks after graduating from high school, Diana Rodriguez is staying busy. The Queens teenager is up at 6 a.m. to go for a morning run, work her two summer jobs, and take driving lessons a few months before she is set to start college.

It’s a heavy workload — but it’s not the biggest responsibility the 17-year-old has taken on. This spring, she led classmates at Grover Cleveland High School in a fight for the school’s life.

The school was one of 33 the city planned to close and reopen using an overhaul process, known as “turnaround,” that included changing the school’s name and replacing half of the school staff.

Rodriguez was enraged. Already the senior class president, she sprang into action galvanizing her classmates to protest the turnaround plans.

“I wouldn’t stand for it,” said Rodriguez. “You can’t mess with my education – education is a right.”

That was Rodriguez’s rallying cry as she joined other students in schools facing closure across the city in a group called Student Activists United. The group turned out students for public hearings, called Panel for Educational Policy members who would vote on the closures, and even held an early-morning rally outside Mayor Bloomberg’s Upper East Side home.

“We weren’t an aggressive activist group. We were just trying to spread awareness,” Rodriguez said.

After months of rallying, including calling Panel for Educational Policy members, Rodriguez’s work paid off: Grover Cleveland was taken off the turnaround roster in April, although most schools remained on the list.

Her leadership caught the attention of Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, a Cleveland alum who also advocated to keep the school open. Nolan hired her as an intern, and Rodriguez is spending the summer asking Ridgewood residents about their concerns and canvassing the neighborhood for problems that need fixing.

“The only good thing that comes out of these crazy school closings is that we meet great young people,” Nolan said.

Rodriguez grew up in Queens but moved to her mother’s house in Florida when she was 12 years old. Three years later, she missed living in a city and chose to move back with her dad, who still lived in the borough.

Even though she didn’t enter Cleveland until she was a junior, Rodriguez quickly became one of the school’s biggest fans. But as a senior busy with student government, four Advanced Placement classes, competing on the track team, and working as a lifeguard, Rodriguez said she didn’t set out to become her high school’s leading student activist.

She just can’t help voicing her opinion.

“I’m never one to stay quiet,” added Rodriguez, who hopes to become a lawyer. Her first step is college, at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where she will study political science.

“Sometimes she answers back to me,” said Luis Rodriguez, Diana’s father, who said he initially worried that the activism could land her in legal trouble. “But when I talked to her teachers, they said she’s the most respectful girl in school.”

Nick Ortiz, Rodriguez’s boyfriend, joked, “She’s so short, she has to feel very imposing and tell her side no matter what.” They’ve been in a relationship for three years.

Nolan said Rodriguez’s passion reminded her of her own stint protesting school budget cuts in the 1970s. That passion was infectious, the politician said.

“Ridgewood can be a very apathetic neighborhood. The school closing kind of awakened the community,” Nolan said.

Rodriguez’s commitment to the protests also impressed the other student activists.

“It was really a joint effort. Everyone had a role but she definitely had a leadership role,” said Justin Watson, who joined the student protests after learning that his school, Legacy for Integrated Studies, was being phased out.

“Diana has the confidence to go out there and speak,” Watson added. “I need to be more like that.”

Rodriguez is set to start political science classes at John Jay this fall. For now, she is working multiple jobs with the goal of buying a car to ease her commute — and to take a break.

“If I get my car in July, I want to go on a road trip somewhere,” she said. “I told my friends it doesn’t matter where, we’re just going.”

Rodriguez said she even though she expects her college courses to be tough, she will make time to keep a watchful eye on her alma mater. Even though the school will remain open next year, it could land on the chopping block again if its student performance data doesn’t improve.

“If the education fight continues, I will definitely be there next year,” she said.

Charter Schools

A new study reveals which NYC charter school networks are outperforming their peers

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Leila Hadd
A KIPP school in the Bronx

All charter schools are not created equal. That’s according to a new study published by Stanford University research group CREDO, which shows some New York City charter school networks are better than others at improving their students’ math and reading test scores relative to surrounding traditional public schools.

The results are part of a broader study released this month that analyzed hundreds of charter schools and networks across 26 states to assess which types of charters are most effective in boosting student learning.

Most notably, the study found that charter school management organizations (CMOs), which CREDO defines as agencies that hold and oversee the operation of at least three charters, perform better than both traditional public schools and charters not aligned with CMOs. Academic growth was defined in the study as the change in a student’s scores from one testing period to the next.

Nationwide, students at CMO-operated charters received an equivalent of 17 days of additional schooling in math and reading compared to similar students in traditional public schools. In New York City, those rates were substantially higher, with students receiving the equivalent of 80 extra days of learning in math and 29 days in reading.

In comparison, non-CMO charter schools in New York City saw students grow only an additional 34 days in math and actually decline in reading compared to students at traditional public schools (The non-CMO reading difference was not statistically significant).

Five out of 11 CMOs in the city saw distinctly better results. Success Academy Charter Schools, which recently won the Broad Prize, came out on top, significantly outperforming most other networks in the city. Its students gained the equivalent of 228 days in math and 120 days in reading instruction compared to their peers in nearby traditional public schools.

However, the study only examined 168 students from the large network, a small share of its total enrollment of roughly 14,000 students in New York City. In an email, CREDO’s Lynn Woodworth told Chalkbeat that many Success students were excluded from the study because they couldn’t be matched to similar students in “feeder” district schools since the network takes few students after the initial enrollment period.

Icahn Charter Schools, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools New York City, KIPP New York City and Democracy Prep Public Schools all posted lower rates than Success — but still outperformed nearby district schools and the city’s average for CMOs.

Students at Icahn Charter Schools received the equivalent of 171 additional days of learning in math and 46 days in reading, compared to students at nearby traditional public schools. Achievement First students were close, with 125 extra days of learning in math and 57 in reading. KIPP New York City, Uncommon Schools New York City and Democracy Prep all posted gains equivalent to roughly 100 days in math and 50 days in reading.

Two networks — Lighthouse Academies and Public Preparatory Network, Inc. — performed closer to the city’s CMO average. And the three other CMOs — Ascend Learning, Explore Schools, Inc. and New Visions for Public Schools — performed comparably to nearby traditional public schools.

“At the average, independent charter schools show lower gains for their students than CMOs,” the report found. “Despite the wide range of CMO quality, larger organizations of charter holders have taken advantage of scale to the benefit of their students.”

First Person

I’m on a Community Education Council in Manhattan. Mayor de Blasio, we need to move faster on school integration

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Mayor de Blasio,

As the mother of a fifth-grade student in a New York City public school and a member of the Community Education Council in Manhattan’s District 2, I thank you for acknowledging that our public school system does not provide equity and excellence for all of our students.

I’m writing to you understanding that the diversity plan the city released this month is a beginning, and that it will take time to integrate our schools. However, the black and Hispanic children of this city do not have decades to wait for us to make change.

I know this firsthand. For the past six years, I have been traveling out of my neighborhood to take my child to one of the city’s few remaining diverse elementary schools, located in Hell’s Kitchen. In looking at middle schools, my criteria for a school were that it matched my child’s academic interests and that it was diverse. Unfortunately, the only middle school that truly encompasses both is a long commute from our home. After commuting by subway for six years, my child wanted a school that was closer to home. I obliged.  

At my child’s middle school orientation, I saw what a segregated school looks like. The incoming class of sixth-graders includes few students of color and does not represent the diversity of our district. This middle school also lacks a diverse teaching staff and administrators. (Had I not sent my child to this school, I would only be fueling the problem, since my child was one of the few children of color admitted to the school.)

These predominately affluent and white schools are creating a new generation of students who will not know how to interact with others that come from different racial, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Integrated schools, on the other hand, will provide opportunities for them to learn and work with students, teachers and school leaders that reflect the diversity of our city and the world we live in.  

There are measures we can take that will have a stronger impact in integrating our schools than what is listed in the diversity plan. I am asking that you come to the table with students, school leadership and parents that are directly affected by school segregation and consider our ideas to create schools that are more equitable for all students.  

In the words of Valerie Castile, whose family received no justice in the death of their son Philando, “The system continues to fail black people.” While she was speaking of the criminal justice system, true reform of that system begins with educating our children — who will be our society’s future police officers, politicians, legislators and judges.

Mayor de Blasio, you have the power to spur change. The students and parents of our great city are asking for your leadership in integrating our schools.

Josephine Ishmon is a member of District 2’s Community Education Council. This is her personal opinion and does not reflect that of the CEC.