senior portrait

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.

High emotions

Denver superintendent sheds light on school closure recommendations, what happens next

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
Parents pick up their children at Amesse Elementary Friday.

While the criteria for Denver school closure recommendations is clearer than ever before, that hasn’t made this week’s emotional conversations at the three low-performing elementary schools facing that fate any easier, Superintendent Tom Boasberg said Friday.

“For school leaders and teachers, they care incredibly deeply about their schools and their kids and they’re very, very committed to them,” Boasberg told Chalkbeat.

“People have respected that there is a clear and transparent process at the intellectual level — and at the emotional level, they’re still very concerned about the changes.”

Denver Public Schools is recommending that Amesse Elementary, Greenlee Elementary and Gilpin Montessori close due to poor school ratings, lagging academic growth and a lack of enough evidence to prove the schools are on a path toward improvement.

The school board is scheduled to vote Thursday on the recommendations, which were made under a new district policy adopted last year and put into effect for the first time this fall.

If the board approves the closures, Amesse and Greenlee would stay open through the end of this school year, 2016-17, and the next school year, 2017-18, Boasberg said.

Each school would be replaced by a new model the following year, 2018-19, he said. The board would choose those models in June 2017 and then give the leaders an entire year to plan — a “year zero” — before asking them to take over in the fall of 2018. Boasberg said the current leaders of Amesse and Greenlee would be welcome to submit plans to reinvent the schools.

The principals at the three schools either declined or did not respond to interview requests.

Walking her second-grader, Clifford, out of Amesse on Friday, parent Sheila Epps voiced her frustration with the district’s closure recommendation. She said in her experience, Amesse is a good school, helping her son get to grade level in reading, writing and math.

She scoffed at what she called DPS’s intense focus on “test scores, test scores, test scores,” saying the district should “stop worrying about rankings” and focus on educating each child.

“As a parent, you feel like there’s nothing you can do,” Epps said. “It’s all up to the district. It’s almost not even worth talking about. It’s like, ‘Now what?’”

The district is recommending a different path for Gilpin. Because of low enrollment projections, Gilpin would close at the end of this school year and not be replaced, Boasberg said.

Students would be guaranteed a seat at one of four neighborhood schools next year: Cole Arts and Science Academy, Whittier ECE-8, University Prep or the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, said Brian Eschbacher, the district’s director of planning and enrollment services. The district would also work with its other Montessori elementary schools to give priority to Gilpin students wishing to continue a Montessori education, he said.

Gilpin’s enrollment is down 30 percent this year from 2013, which is in line with an overall trend in the Five Points neighborhood in northeast Denver, where Gilpin is located, Eschbacher said.

Neighborhood birth rates are also down, meaning there isn’t a big group of infants and toddlers waiting in the wings, and DPS already has 1,000 empty seats in the area, he added.

Said Boasberg: “Even if Gilpin had not been designated under (the policy), we would have either this year or next year … been in a situation where one of the elementary schools in that area would have had to close because of the decline of school-aged kids.”

At 202 students this year, Gilpin is the second-smallest elementary school in the district, Boasberg said. That causes a financial crunch because schools are funded on a per-pupil basis. He said the district is providing Gilpin with an extra $600,000 this year to ensure it’s able to provide smaller class sizes, more teacher aides in the classroom, more staff members to support students’ mental health and a broader array of arts and music offerings.

“We always want to see our schools succeed and we’ve worked hard to provide supports and resources in these cases,” Boasberg said, referring to all three schools recommended for closure. “But while there have been improvements in the schools, we’re not seeing — and haven’t seen now for some time — the kind of growth the kids in the schools need.”

Monica Lubbert lives across the street from Gilpin and sent her third-grade daughter there for several years before pulling her out last year after spring break. Her daughter had fallen behind academically and Lubbert said she didn’t feel the struggling school was capable of catching her up — a shortcoming for which she believes the school district and community share the blame.

“This is not the teachers that did anything wrong. This is not the kids that did anything wrong,” Lubbert said. Instead, she said the district didn’t follow best practices years ago when it converted Gilpin to a Montessori school. “This was the complete … mismanagement of DPS.”

Lubbert also partly attributed the school’s troubles to the fact that many kids who live in the neighborhood go to school elsewhere, as is allowed under the district’s school choice policy. District statistics show 64 percent of children who live in the school’s boundary choiced out this year. Lubbert’s own daughter is attending a private Montessori school.

“This community has gone above and beyond to make every single home in the neighborhood a historically designated home,” she said. But no one seems to care about the school, she added. “How does the community grow and thrive without a school for the kids?”

Boasberg admitted that the district learned some hard lessons over the years about how best to restart low-performing schools, which is what happened at Gilpin. But he said the new policy in effect this year represents a better way to do things.

As for what will happen to the centrally located Gilpin building if the board closes the school, Boasberg said DPS would like for it to remain a school. While the neighborhood doesn’t need any more elementaries, he said the preliminary thinking is to convert it into a secondary school that could draw students from across the city, as Denver School of the Arts, Denver Center for International Studies and Girls Athletic Leadership Academy currently do.

Chalkbeat’s Eric Gorski contributed information to this report.

bigger issues

Harlem parents want more time to weigh in on school rezoning and merger

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
The city Department of Education has proposed merging P.S. 241 the STEM Institute of Manhattan into P.S. 76 A. Philip Randolph, about eight blocks away in Harlem.

Crystal Bailey’s son came home from school recently with a dirty uniform. Before she could fuss at him, he explained it was muck from science class.

“He’s like, ‘Guess what I learned?’ How could I be mad at that?” Bailey said.

She and dozens of other parents gathered at a public hearing Thursday night to protest plans to merge and rezone their school, P.S. 241 STEM Institute of Manhattan in Harlem.

For parents, elected officials and advocates, the plan in Harlem has grown to symbolize larger issues: school segregation and the impact of charter schools.

“This is an equity issue,” said Emmaia Gelman, a member of the group New York City Public School Parents for Equity and Desegregation.

The Department of Education has proposed to merge P.S. 241 with P.S. 76 A. Philip Randolph, and to redraw the school lines around P.S. 241. Under the plan, families currently zoned for P.S. 241 would be distributed among other local schools: P.S. 76, P.S. 180, P.S. 185/P.S. 208.

“Why do you want to unravel this institution, rather than strengthen it?” Maria Garcia, who has two children at P.S. 241, asked at Thursday’s hearing.

The proposal comes on the heels of another contentious rezoning in District 3, which spans from the Upper West Side to 122nd Street in Harlem. Both plans have highlighted stark differences among the area’s schools.

For more than a year, parents railed against plans to redraw school boundaries on the Upper West Side, where students are packed into high-performing schools. In Harlem, a rezoning plan was presented just weeks before a final vote was expected — and only after the Department of Education proposed to merge a school that has struggled with enrollment and performance on state tests.

Enrollment at P.S. 241 has hovered around 100 students in recent years, despite a federal magnet grant designed to attract families — and integrate the school — by offering a curriculum in science, technology, engineering and math. The school has seen a small uptick in enrollment recently, but parents say it has been squeezed by two charter schools that share its building.

“Why do we have to go?” asked Tasha Clarke, who has two sons at P.S. 241.

The merger and rezoning rely on two separate processes. The citywide Panel for Educational Policy is scheduled to vote on the merger in January.

The District 3 Community Education Council must ultimately vote on the rezoning. Though a vote is scheduled for Dec. 14, council members have begun to voice reservations about the plan.

“Anybody who thinks that this council has decided to vote to approve this is sorely mistaken,” council President Joe Fiordaliso said at the hearing.

Council members shared data they compiled that shows declining enrollment in the area’s schools and growing charter enrollment.

“We’re in crisis,” said council member Daniel Katz.

This isn’t the first time P.S. 241 has fought to keep its doors open. The DOE tried in 2009 to close the school and replace it with charters.

The New York Civil Liberties Union and teachers union sued, arguing that by closing a zoned school, the department was essentially redrawing attendance boundaries. That falls under the purview of Community Education Councils, which vote on all zoning decisions.

Soon after the suit was filed, the DOE dropped its plans to shutter P.S. 241. But CEC member Noah Gotbaum thinks the same issues apply to the proposed merger — and therefore the council could play a crucial role in determining the school’s fate.

“I think we on the CEC need to look at the merger very, very carefully and essentially make a decision on it,” he told Chalkbeat, “and not say that we don’t have the power or the right.”