As light faded on the first arctic day of winter, a band of 40 die-hard parents huddled on Seventh Avenue, outside Region 9 headquarters of the Department of Education. Mostly white and middle-aged, armed with signs and certainty, they stood shivah for a dream foreclosed on the Lower East Side: the notorious NEST+m, a school for the best and brightest in all New York.
Braced against the slicing wind, they chanted against the ousting of their founding principal, the feared and revered Celenia Chévere, and grieved for the motto she once posted outside her office door:
A public school with a private-school mission.
The sign dripped with hubris, but it had wooed the striving classes well. Since the troubled birth of New Explorations Into Science, Technology & Math, in 2001, its parents had tithed body and soul and disposable income—for their children, to be sure, but also for the urban impossibility: a truly great public school. In NEST they’d found a hothouse with record test scores, free of the usual tawdry concessions—sardined classes, peeling paint, creeping illiteracy.
Now, after some nasty infighting and a crackdown by the chancellor, their school had been turned inside-out. For the old guard, everything precious seemed dead: small-group advisories, split-gender math and science, the Sarah Lawrence–size seminars, the prepster dress code. Demoralized, the stalwarts had coined a different sort of slogan: Just another DoE school.
When a school loses the culture that made it distinctive, “people imply that it’s a law of history … that it died a natural death,” says Deborah Meier, founder of the seminal alternative school Central Park East. “If we actually track it back, it may have been murdered.”
Last fall, as NEST imploded, its PTA president emeritus moved her son to a private high school. “I feel like I’ve been robbed,” says Emily Armstrong, “and there’s nothing I can do about it.” She has a theory about why NEST’s enemies sought to strangle it in the cradle and kept at it till they won.
“It’s all race and class,” she says wearily. “It’s nothing else but that.”
This is more than the story of a renegade educator or a bold experiment come undone. It’s about the push-and-pull between excellence and access—and about the unlucky children who get trampled along the way. Who owns the city’s schools? Was NEST a beacon of meritocracy, or an island of privilege that barred students who needed it most?
“NEST,” says Granville Leo Stevens, of the Independent Parent Organizations, “is an allegory.”
NEST was designed to help solve an age-old dilemma: how to keep what was left of the city’s middle class—with its skilled progeny and open checkbooks—inside a school system seen as second-rate. Without moneyed white people, went the presumption, the schools would flatline into irrevocable failure. The classic strategy was to keep funneling the most resources and best teachers to zoned schools in predominantly white areas. In mixed or changing neighborhoods, more of a sanctuary was needed: the gifted program.
In 2000, Chancellor Harold Levy hit upon another approach. Taking a page from the private model, Levy imagined a constellation of “rigorous” schools spanning kindergarten through twelfth grade, one for each borough. A K-12 would finesse the system’s weakest link: the stand-alone middle school, a torture chamber that sends many a middle-class family heading for the exits. NEST would be the chancellor’s prototype. He placed it in Community School District 1, a compact trapezoid in the Lower East Side and East Village that for years had bled its best students to District 2, its richer neighbor. Levy aimed to lure those families back with an innovative school to rival anything uptown.
The chancellor knew that his brainchild would need a lightning rod, a leader driven and unyielding. He chose Celenia Chévere, a petite firebrand with boundless energy, a blinding smile, and a hair-trigger temper. From her start as a lowly teacher’s assistant in the late seventies, she’d become one of the most coveted—and controversial—principals around.
After raising two daughters as a single mother (enrolling the younger one, at great sacrifice, at Calhoun), Chévere knew the value of a superior public school. In 1986, when a freestanding gifted program sounded radical, she founded Lower Laboratory in District 2. Ten years later, on East 106th Street, she opened the Young Women’s Leadership School, an oasis of Oriental carpets and nunnery quiet against the raging picket lines of now and the NYCLU. Yet despite her brilliance as a “starter,” Chévere never stayed in one place too long. She ran a building like Hubie Brown coached a basketball team, with an overbearing manner that soon wore thin. “If you did not conform,” says a source who worked with her in East Harlem, “she would destroy you.”