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.

contract sport

UFT files labor complaint against KIPP charter school

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew

An unusual dispute between the United Federation of Teachers and the elite KIPP charter chain spilled into public view Thursday after the union issued a press release accusing KIPP Academy Charter School in the Bronx of threatening to fire teachers if they did not vote to decertify the union.

The union’s claims, which were filed with the National Labor Relations Board this week and are disputed by KIPP, assert that school administrators encouraged staff members to sign a petition that would bar the UFT from representing its teachers.

The situation is uncommon because most charter schools in New York City aren’t unionized and are built partly on the premise that union rules are impediments to a sound education. But KIPP Academy is a “conversion” school, one of few district schools that morphed into charter schools.

The school’s 16-year-old status as a district-cum-charter school is likely at the heart of the dispute over whether its staff members are contractually tied to the UFT. Union officials say roughly 80 of its teachers and other staff members are covered by the city’s contract with the UFT — an idea that KIPP disputes.

“Except for collecting your dues from every paycheck, the union has not ever actively represented you,” Jim Manly, the superintendent of KIPP schools in New York City, wrote in a letter Thursday to staff across the city. The union’s NLRB complaint “and the aggressiveness of their press release is a preemptive effort by the UFT to block your individual ability to decide whether or not you want to be represented by the UFT.”

The latest disagreement over whether the UFT can enforce the city’s contract at KIPP Academy seems to have started boiling over this summer, when the union filed a grievance that alleges a laundry list of contractual violations.

KIPP’s Manly characterized the union’s grievance as a way of making “fundamental changes in the way we educate our students.” He added that staff members had previously tried to get the union decertified in 2010, but were blocked by the UFT.

KIPP co-founder David Levin emphasized the unusual nature of the UFT’s complaint. “For the past 22 years, KIPP Academy’s success has been the collaboration and effort among our educators, students, and parents,” he wrote in a statement. “In all that time, the UFT has never been involved in our school or raised any issues or concerns before now.”

In an interview, union officials said the grievance was filed over the summer for clear contract violations, and that KIPP’s attempt to coerce teachers into rejecting the union was directed in retaliation.

“Charter school employees, like other workers, have a right under federal law to organize and bargain collectively, rights that charter schools must respect,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said in a statement.

The NLRB will investigate the UFT’s complaint, but in the meantime, you can read their allegations, and KIPP’s full response to its staff members.

deconstructing devos

Will Betsy DeVos change education as you know it? Probably not — but your state lawmakers could

The confirmation hearing for President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to lead the federal education department made Betsy DeVos the new face of American education policy.

But the most important upcoming decisions about schools won’t come from the Trump administration, and they won’t be made by DeVos, who faces a confirmation vote Jan. 24. They’ll happen a lot closer to home, in the state legislatures that have long been the main drivers of education policy.

U.S. lawmakers already empowered states to control more of their school policies through the federal education law passed last year. And DeVos said she would stay the course, emphasizing that states should decide whether to take up even her favorite education policy, school vouchers.

Here’s where states still have the most influence, even if DeVos might have some sway.

School vouchers

DeVos has made a career out of pushing school choice legislation, especially laws that allow public money be used toward tuition at private or religious schools. But DeVos’s appointment doesn’t mean vouchers would sweep the nation — instead, state legislatures would have to create voucher programs.

That’s within the realm of possibility in some states, such as Tennessee, where voucher legislation has come close to passing in recent years. After spending the better part of a decade wrestling over the issue, Tennessee lawmakers who support vouchers are optimistic that they might finally push through a program for poor students this year. (DeVos has played a role in currying support through her foundation and advocacy group, American Federation for Children.)

But some states, like New York, would need more than money to adopt vouchers. They’d need a total change in political winds, and possibly even a change in the state constitution, to allow public money to be spent on religiously affiliated schools. Similarly, state supreme court decisions in Colorado make vouchers only a distant possibility.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students eat lunch at the Oaks Academy Middle School, a private Christian school in Indiana that is integrated by design and accepts taxpayer funded vouchers.

How schools are judged

No Child Left Behind, passed in 2002 under President George W. Bush, created uniformity in the way states evaluated whether schools and school districts were doing their jobs. Under President Obama, states were allowed waivers that freed them up, although some requirements — like requiring test data to be used in teacher evaluations — remained in place.

The new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, is supposed to go even farther. That means the country will have a quilt of different systems, as states arrive at different answers for what school quality means and how it should be measured.

So, for example, while ESSA requires states to report English language learners’ test scores, some states will wait to count their scores until they’ve been in the country for a few years, and others will start right away.

DeVos’ office would have the final say on these plans, but she’s not expected to be heavy-handed. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate education committee and co-sponsored ESSA, said he is optimistic that she won’t interfere with states’ visions.

“As secretary, she will be able to implement the new law fixing No Child Left Behind just as Congress wrote it … restoring to states, governors, school boards, teachers, and parents greater responsibility for improving education in their local communities,” Alexander said in November.

Charter schools

DeVos has also been a proponent of charter schools. But the gatekeepers for charter schools operate at the state, or even local, level.

Massachusetts voters declined to lift a cap on charter schools when they voted down a ballot initiative in November. And state lawmakers in Colorado and New York are gearing up for perennial battles over state charter school funding, over which they — not the U.S. Department of Education — have the final say. Seven states still don’t allow charter schools at all.

States also take different approaches to how their charter sectors are regulated.

In DeVos’s home state of Michigan, about 80 percent of charter schools are run by for-profit companies. But for-profit charters only represent 13 percent of charter schools nationwide, in part because many other states, including Tennessee, New York, and Colorado, prohibit them.

And while DeVos aggressively opposed measures to increase oversight of Detroit’s charter schools, even ones with abysmal test scores, other states have tighter regulations on when charter schools must close.

ESSA does include grants for “high quality charter schools,” and stipulates that the Secretary of Education must prioritize giving them to states that do things like craft an ambitious plan for their charter sector and provide equitable funding for those schools. Some states might be tempted to pass laws to conform to DeVos’s ideas about what ambitious plans and equitable funding looks like. But final decisions about charter schools will still be made at a more local level.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Students line up at Michigan Technical Academy, a charter school in Michigan, DeVos’s home state.


States all face one common challenge: how to allocate scarce resources for public education.

Here, the next U.S. Secretary of Education might play a bigger role for some states than others. While federal funds only account for about 9 percent of the country’s total education spending, some states rely on it much more than others. Title I spending alone accounted for 4.6 percent of total education spending in North Carolina last year, and 4.3 percent in Mississippi, meaning that any cuts or changes to the federal pool of money devoted to poor students could have big ripple effects in those states.

Competitive grant programs, like the Obama administration’s Race to the Top or the charter school grants, can influence state policy, too. That’s what happened in Tennessee, which rushed to revamp its teacher evaluation system and implement a state-run school turnaround district in 2010 in order to win the money.

But federal grants come with end dates, and budgets remain the purview of states and local governments. Courts have consistently decided that it’s up to states to decide what constitutes adequate and equitable funding — and that means school resources will continue to vary widely across the country.