July 6, 2012
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.”
“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.