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.

new use

Committee picks Denver Language School to use building vacated by shuttered elementary

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Teacher Yu-Hsin Lien helps her third-grade students with classwork at the Denver Language School.

A charter middle school that immerses students in Spanish and Mandarin Chinese would occupy the northeast Denver building of an elementary school shuttered for low performance if the school board follows a committee recommendation made public Friday.

Denver Language School serves more than 700 students from across the city in kindergarten through eighth grade, although the recommendation is only for the upper grades. The school was one of seven that applied to use the building previously occupied by Gilpin Montessori elementary school in the Five Points neighborhood.

With real estate for schools scarce in Denver, the recommendation represents a win for the Denver Language School and a nod to some of the district’s priorities, including rewarding highly rated schools and collaborating with charters.

A committee of community members and Denver Public Schools employees tasked with reviewing potential occupants is recommending placing the charter’s fourth through eighth grades there next year while the school’s current building in east Denver is being renovated. After that, the recommendation is for the fifth through eighth grades to be housed at Gilpin.

In a letter to the community (read it below), the committee cited Denver Language School’s “high academic performance” and “track record of strong enrollment” among the reasons they chose it. The school has for the past two years been rated “green,” the district’s second-highest rating.

Because of the language immersion model, few new students enroll after kindergarten, which means the middle school wouldn’t draw many students away from neighborhood schools, the letter says, a concern voiced by some community members.

Denver Language School would pay the district to use the building. In a gentrifying city where real estate prices have been steadily increasing and the number of school buildings is limited, securing an affordable location is one of the biggest hurdles charters face.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg received the recommendation earlier this week. He is expected on Dec. 18 to make his recommendation to the school board, which is set to vote Dec. 21.

The school board voted last year to close Gilpin Montessori despite community opposition. This year, the building housed several programs serving students with special needs while the district decided on a long term occupant. The district’s criteria for that occupant were that it be a currently operating or previously approved secondary school with 600 students or fewer.

Denver Language School opened in 2010. Last year, it served about 300 students in grades five through eight. The letter says the school expects to enroll 365 students in those grades in future years, which means it would not fill the entire 600-student-capacity Gilpin building.

“In the future, we will revisit options for using the rest of the building,” the letter says.

The committee also noted the diversity of Denver Language School’s students as a positive. Last year, about 48 percent of students were children of color and 19 percent qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty. Both percentages are below district averages.

The committee included four community members and five Denver Public Schools employees. They met privately five times over the course of two and a half weeks to come up with their recommendation. The district also hosted several forums to gather community feedback.

The committee members were:

  • Evelyn Barnes, parent of two students and aide to city council president Albus Brooks
  • John Hayden, president of the Curtis Park Neighbors neighborhood association
  • Katherine Murphy, parent of a former Gilpin student and a Curtis Park resident
  • Maggie Miller, member of the city’s Slot Home Task Force and a Five Points resident
  • Joe Amundsen, DPS’s associate director of school design and intensive support
  • Liz Mendez, DPS’s director of operations support services
  • Maya Lagana, DPS’s senior director of portfolio management
  • Sara Baris, DPS’s senior manager of planning and analysis
  • Shontel Lewis, DPS’s manager of public affairs

The other schools that applied included one district-run alternative high school, Compassion Road Academy, and five other charter schools: The Boys School, Colorado High School Charter GES, Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, 5280 High School and The CUBE. The last two schools have been approved by the district but are not yet open.

Read a letter the district sent to the Gilpin community below.

Indiana graduation pathways

Parents and educators worry about how new graduation rules will affect students with disabilities

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

In the wake of a wildly unpopular decision to change Indiana’s high school graduation rules, state officials must grapple with how to actually implement the plan — and students with disabilities could face more challenges following those rules than their peers.

Called graduation pathways, the goal was to ensure students are ready for life after high school, but the recommendations are complex. The system seems to overlap with existing Indiana diploma requirements and also requires additional criteria such as exams, completing advanced courses, or gaining credit for internships.

But there are no guidelines around, for example, what kinds of internships or community service programs would count for graduation, what kinds of supports and accommodations would be in place for students with disabilities or how the pathways would function alongside a student’s needs for special services and therapies.

The potential for these challenges was not lost on the dozens of parents and educators who tried to convince state officials last week to rethink the plan. Most of the people who commented publicly and many who sent emails to the state education department mentioned concerns about students with special needs being able to meet the new demands.

Stacey Brewer, a principal in Yorktown, talked about her own child, a 6-year-old with autism, when she addressed the Indiana State Board of Education.

“There is a very real chance that my child with autism will never be able to accomplish” parts of the graduation pathways plan that go beyond what’s required by the state’s general diploma, Brewer said. The state is “not weighing out the disastrous impact” the plan would have on students.

As she finished her passionate testimony, she walked back to her seat to energetic applause from the packed auditorium. Many with similar stories and sentiments spoke after her.

J.T. Coopman, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents said before Indiana can create graduation pathways, it needs to figure out what’s happening with its diplomas — a related issue that has vexed parents and educators ever since the federal government announced it would no longer count Indiana’s general diploma in the graduation rate the state reports. The move could exclude about 12 percent of Hoosier high schoolers from being considered graduates.

Indiana has four diplomas: The standard Core 40 diploma, a general diploma with fewer requirements, and two honors diplomas, one for academics and another for career and technical education. Most students in the state earn a Core 40.

“Don’t we need to fix the diploma statute to better serve all Indiana students before we embark on a new, untested direction for our graduates?” Coopman said.

Not all of the feedback was negative. Mary Roberson, a superintendent in Perry County, said she supported the graduation pathways plan overall, and that her district was already having students with disabilities pursue internships, where they’ve been successful.

In a newsletter sent out last week, Pam Wright, director of special education for the Indiana Department of Education, said policymakers and educators need to remember that all students with disabilities are not the same and have different needs and abilities. Some might struggle to meet the pathways requirements, but others might not.

“It is my hope that as other debates occur during this legislative session, the one-size-fits-all disability myth continues to be debunked,” Wright said in the newsletter. “Yes, definitely, students with disabilities need to be considered in any public policy change, but the uniqueness of each student’s capabilities should not be lost in the debate.”

Only about 17 percent of students with disabilities don’t earn a high school diploma, and almost half earn the state’s standard Core 40 diploma or an honors diploma.

Conversations about pathways, both as they relate to special education and to a variety of other topics, are just getting started. The pathways committee said it would continue to meet to address whether Indiana should create a single statewide diploma and how graduation waivers work in the new system.

Indiana law allows for a graduation waiver if students fail to meet pathway requirements, but the waivers are controversial, and schools are sometimes hesitant to award them. Supporters say they give opportunities to students who might face specific challenges, but critics believe the waivers give students a free pass and don’t ensure they leave high school with adequate skills.

No additional committee meetings have been scheduled at this time.

Students with significant cognitive disabilities — generally about 1 percent of students across the state — wouldn’t be affected by the pathways plan. They typically don’t earn high school diplomas, instead they receive a certificate of completion, a credential that until recently showed employers or educators little else besides that a student physically attended school. (It has since been expanded and updated to include more course suggestions and academic structure.)

Last week wasn’t the first time special education advocates came out in full force to challenge state officials on policy that could be detrimental to students with disabilities. Several diploma-related topics have garnered considerable attention, such as when the state attempted to overhaul diplomas in 2015.

The next year, when lawmakers passed legislation to ensure all schools offered students a chance to earn any state diplomas, educators, parents and other community advocates were there testifying to lawmakers, too. And as recently as last year, when an early version of a bill would have killed the general diploma, the language was amended out after pressure from the special education community.

Often, these graduation policy changes are sparked by a call for students to meet higher standards demanded either by employers or higher education. But Kim Dodson, executive director for the Arc of Indiana, an organization that advocates for people with disabilities, said focusing on raising the academic bar distracts from the very real problems policies like the current graduation pathways plan could present to students with special needs.

“Most of the time, when students fall short of their expectations, it’s not because the bar wasn’t set high enough,” Dodson said. “It’s because they didn’t have the resources and accommodations they needed to be fully successful.”