The principal was 55 years old when Levy called; she figured she had one start-up left in her. NEST would be her legacy.
To her devotees, Chévere offered something irresistible: a safe haven from mediocrity, without Dalton’s tuition or Larchmont’s taxes. Equal parts Mary Poppins and Captain Bligh, she believed that discipline and a spoonful of phonics could propel her charges to “leading roles in science, politics, and industry—indeed, in every realm of society,” as NEST’s “Mission and Vision Statement” grandly claimed. They would get there the old-fashioned way—though Chévere had studied at Bank Street, a progressive stronghold, she had come to favor traditional schooling over what she called “loosey-goosey” reformism. Her students diagrammed sentences and learned long division; NEST would be the first school in the city, public or private, to use the acclaimed Singapore Math.
For Levy and Chévere, the case for NEST was self-evident: a bright idea, an avid clientele.
Which made it all the more startling when it blew up in their faces.
For NEST, geography was destiny. At the time of the school’s birth, the Lower East Side was a stew of new Asian immigrants, working-class Puerto Ricans, the Jewish mandarins of Grand Street, and the nouveau-funk professional set lusting after a bargain co-op. But even as the neighborhood simmered and changed, one thing stayed the same: the feeble schools of District 1. The local school board, riven with political strife, was disinclined to provoke its constituents (or highlight its own failings) by allowing a seat of privilege to be dropped into the neighborhood. On January 30, 2001, the board voted to establish NEST as a “school of choice” for any district student, subject only to a lottery and racial quotas.
The resolution alarmed Chévere. For NEST to work as planned, she had no use for students from failing local schools; she needed children who matched her template: dogged workers who thrived on structure and racked up 3’s and 4’s (at or above grade level) on the standardized tests. How could she run a college-prep school without families committed to college? How could she guard her standards without winnowing wheat from chaff?
Although Chévere declined to be interviewed for this story, she wrote the following: NEST+m was designed to be a college-preparatory school with admissions standards … That part of the mission and vision was one of my non-negotiables and was very clear from the start.
But the hot-button issue was on the table: Who would get into NEST, and who would be left at the courtyard gate?
The first public meeting was held that spring at the site chosen for the fledgling K-12: Junior High School 22. Built in 1959 as a three-story Mondrian of blue and gray metal panels, it was twinned from the start to Baruch Houses, a mammoth high-rise project that opened the same year across Columbia Street. By the time NEST went on the drawing board, only a couple of hundred students were still warehoused at the junior high. Plexiglas windows bathed rats in a yellowish half-light; the parking lot was a drug bazaar. The school was ready to die, and be reborn.
As she listened to the speakers, Gladys Ortega, a day-care provider who lived at Baruch, could scarcely believe her good fortune. Her daughter and niece were heading into seventh grade, and now they’d have a fine new school across the street. At the meeting, she recalls, Councilwoman Margarita Lopez said, “‘The only reason I’m letting this school come in my district is because my kids deserve the best.’ And Celenia said, ‘I have no problem with that.’ We clapped, and we were so happy—we had a celebration.”
But Chévere most certainly did have a problem. With hindsight, the flashpoint was inscribed in fine and damning print on NEST’s brochure: “A K-12 College Preparatory School in RoHo.” Unfortunately, the Hispanic neck of the Lower East Side already had a name: Loisaida, the old Puerto Rican barrio. RoHo stood for “Right on Houston,” but Rosie Mendez—now the neighborhood’s councilwoman, then a Lopez aide—parsed another meaning: educational gentrification.
Over the next few months, Chévere did all she could to discourage the locals. Of two dozen sessions where NEST applications were distributed, twenty were held at the 14th Street Y, at the cusp of District 1 and the whiter, wealthier District 2. “It was like trying to catch a moonbeam,” says Margarita Rosa, executive director of the Grand Street Settlement. Rosa’s deputy, Pablo Tejada, ran a Beacon program after school and on weekends at JHS 22, serving close to 2,000 children, youth, and adults. Although he saw Chévere weekly that spring, Tejada says, he couldn’t get NEST brochures until after the deadline. When parents pressed to learn more about the school, Rosa says, they were “treated very, very rudely and given the runaround … It was an atmosphere that basically said, ‘Certain people need not apply.’”