The issues, they said, have more to do with the socio-economic problems in the students' families than the teachers, staff and programs at the school. In addition, due to Grover Cleveland's “open door policy,” many students are learning English as a Second Language (ESL), but are illiterate in their native tongues.
Grover Cleveland faces the turnaround method, which would give the building a new name and eliminate 50 percent of its staff come September. Schools are slated for turnaround when they've been on the state's Persistently Low Achieving (PLA) list, meaning graduation rates were below 60 percent, for the last three years.
Currently, Grover Cleveland's graduation rate is at 58 percent, 5 percent below the city average.
The meeting, hosted by Citizens for a Better Ridgewood, was also attended by the Education Department's Chief Executive of Turnaround Elaine Gorman and Queens member of the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP) Dmytro Fedkowskyj.
Gorman said Grover Cleveland started out the year as a restart school, which is another form of change to the school's administrative infrastructure, but the state cut off $58 million in school improvement grants when an agreement on teacher evaluations wasn't reached, forcing restart schools to change over to the turnaround method.
“We know schools well enough to know that that does not mean that the school isn't doing a good job with many students,” Gorman said. “It's just not able to graduate as many students as we want.”
Gorman stuck around to answer technical questions about turnaround, and apologized for the turmoil the process is causing in the school.
However, when asked how the turnaround method would affect the students specifically, she replied that the question was too broad and suggested emailing it to her. She left shortly after.
Members of Citizens for a Better Ridgewood and representatives from local elected officials then asked staff members in the office what the problems are in the school.
Maria Rozos, ESL master teacher at Grover Cleveland, said she is proud of the work the teachers accomplish with the students. She said one of her ESL classes is currently reading “Farenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury.
“These are second-language learners who sometimes are illiterate in their own language, they cannot write in their own language, and they are writing and speaking English almost native-like,” Rozos said. “It's a great accomplishment.”
She said she holds office hours to work on lesson plans with teachers, along with after-school and Saturday tutoring sessions for students and their parents. But, Rozos added, her program needs more resources.
Russell Nitchman, a science teacher who runs the plant-science program at Grover Cleveland, said it's hard for the teachers to do their jobs effectively under so much pressure and while stressing over what might happen in September.
He told a story about a student who took off school for a week to get a job so he could afford to go on a senior trip. Other students, Nitchman said, leave school early and come in late so they can care for their younger siblings – adding that elementary schools need more before and after-school programs.
Some students often move between relatives, foster homes and shelters, he said.
“When you hear the stories from some of these kids, it's amazing that as many that come do come,” Nitchman said.
Students also attended the meeting to tell their stories about how their lives changed since they started at Grover Cleveland.
One student, who identified herself as Maria, said she came to the school as a sophomore instead of a junior because she didn't pass any of her Regents exams.
“Now this past month, I didn't only pass all my Regents with good grades, I'm actually now ahead of my credits,” Maria said, adding that she's also a Key Club member.
The PEP will host a hearing on Monday, April 2, at 6 p.m. in the Grover Cleveland auditorium, located at 21-27 Himrod Street in Ridgewood. The panel will vote on the decision on April 26th.