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.”

In the money

Here’s how Colorado schools would spend an extra $100 million from the state

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Hannah Moore, 8, shows off her moves during practice for an after school talent show that is part of the Scholars Unlimited After School program at Ashley Elementary school on March 10, 2017 in Denver, Colorado. Scholars Unlimited is an after school and summer program funded by the 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant, which is threatened to be cut entirely under the White House's budget cuts. The 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant served almost 20,000 students in Colorado between 2015 and 2016 and 76 percent of students showed academic improvement. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Legislators on the Joint Budget Committee unanimously decided this week to set aside $100 million to “buy down” the budget stabilization factor.

This number – $822 million in 2017-18 – is the amount by which Colorado underfunds its schools when compared to the constitutional requirement that spending on education increase every year based on student count and inflation. It’s more commonly known as the negative factor, though lawmakers are trying to get away from that term.

For several years now, lawmakers have held the negative factor steady, but this year, as Colorado has more money to spend than it has had in a long time, Gov. John Hickenlooper wanted to make a dent in it and requested the $100 million reduction. To be clear, a $100 million reduction in the negative factor is $100 million more that the state would send to districts. Technically, this number will be finalized in a separate piece of legislation, the School Finance Bill, which is coming any day now.

But state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee, wanted to give some reassurance to educators that the money will be there in the budget. 

“It would send a message to our K-12 community that we are not spending that money and have set it aside,” she said.

And educators have been clamoring to hear that message. The Colorado School Finance Project has been running a social media campaign for the $100 million buydown using the hashtags #k12needsco and #kidsmattertoo.

The non-profit asked school superintendents around the state to say what they would do with the extra money, which translates to an additional $114 on average for each enrolled student, compared to holding the budget stabilization factor steady. The answers are identified by region, but not by district.

Here’s a small sample of the responses:

You can read all of them here.

The Joint Budget Committee has set total program spending on education at $7.75 billion before the negative factor is applied, up from $7.45 billion this year, a 4 percent increase. Of total program spending, the state will pay $4.4 billion, with the rest coming from local property taxes. This doesn’t include voter-approved tax increases known as mill levy overrides.

That translates to average per-pupil spending of $7,959, compared to $7,662 this year. A budget stabilization factor of $722 million would yield an average per-pupil amount closer to $8,074. 

The smaller budget stabilization factor is significant beyond just one budget year because state law says that this number shouldn’t get larger from one year to the next. However, Colorado superintendents are also pushing for a tax increase and change to the distribution of school money. It will take more than an additional $100 million spread among 870,000 students to address all the needs they identify in their responses to the Colorado School Finance Project.

Hickenlooper had also requested an additional $200 million for the state education fund, with the intention that that money be used to offset costs to districts from proposed changes to the public pension system and expected reductions in property tax revenue in rural communities.

The Joint Budget Committee instead voted to set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with fixing the Public Employees Retirement Association’s unfunded liability – but in the general fund rather than the state education fund and not specifically to help schools, where retirement costs account for a big chunk of the personnel budget.

The committee also agreed to set aside $30 million to help small rural districts with low tax bases and was supportive of setting aside $10 million to address rural teacher shortages, though some of the details are still being worked out.

March for Our Lives

Memphis students say Saturday protest is not just about school shootings. It’s about all gun violence.

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
A student at Columbine High School holds a sign during a protest of gun violence, on March 14, 2018 in Littleton, Colorado.

Students marching Saturday in Memphis against gun violence say they are not only protesting the shootings that killed 17 people last month at a Florida high school. They also are speaking out against shootings that happen daily in their own city.

Seventeen-year-old John Chatman says he fears school shootings, but he especially fears the common gun violence in his neighborhood of South Memphis. He has lost close friends to shootings.

“It can happen anywhere, anytime,” Chatman said. “I think [this march] is a great stand. We should protest against school shootings. But we have to talk about what kids like me are seeing in Memphis on the daily.”

Memphis had 200 homicides in 2017, down from 228 the previous year, the deadliest year recorded in the city in two decades.

Chatman is one of hundreds of Memphians expected to participate in this weekend’s March for Our Lives event as part of a nationwide protest sparked by the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The largest march will be in Washington, D.C., where up to a half million protesters are expected, but smaller demonstrations are planned in cities and towns across the nation. In Tennessee, other marches are slated for Jackson, Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Clarksville, Cookeville, and Johnson City.

The Memphis march will start at 10 a.m. at Claiborne Temple, and Savanah Thompson will be there. One of more than a dozen student organizers, she worries that news about people getting shot has become commonplace.

“Being in Memphis, you get used to hearing about gun violence,” said Thompson, a freshman at White Station High School. “This affects the youth in our city. … We never want a school shooting to happen in Memphis or anywhere ever again.”

Alyssa Kieren, a student leader at Collierville High School, hopes the march fosters a sense of unity.

“We’re trying to stress that this isn’t a partisan issue,” Kieren said. “We have to acknowledge there is a problem and we have to come up with solutions. … The thing we’re upset about is that children are dying in our schools, and they’re dying in our city.”