Lopez was pushing for access to NEST. According to Armstrong, the councilwoman announced that every child at Baruch had a guaranteed spot at the new school. As summer approached and few acceptance letters made their way to the project, the backlash began: Leaflets blasted NEST as racist. There were death threats, and smashed windshields in the parking lot. “I’m one of them,” Chévere plaintively told the Times, referring to her Hispanic critics. “But they don’t see me as that. They see me as elitist.”
For those who’d watched students languish at the old junior high, it must have been unbearable to feel locked out as the renovated building filled with light and air and shiny programs. Their children had been cheated for too many years, and they laid claim to NEST as payment past due. “There’s a fitting sense of ownership between a community and a community school,” says Lisa Donlan, first vice-president of District 1’s Community Education Council. “And when the building is emptied out to put in something new, people feel that they’ve been displaced.”
In June 2001, the school board called upon NEST to rescind its 150 acceptance letters and hold a lottery, a stance supported by the NYCLU. Chévere—thanks to a loophole unearthed by Chad Vignola, the chancellor’s counsel—held firm; the admissions policy was her bedrock.
In actuality, even with the principal’s screens, NEST’s first class was fairly diverse. (If only by default. Middle-class white people tend to make for reluctant pioneers.) According to the DoE’s year-end register, 59 percent of its students lived in District 1. The school’s white population stood at 39 percent—far greater than the white contingent districtwide, but still leaving room for a good number of Hispanic and black working-class families from Loisaida, including a few from Baruch. More than 80 percent of the student body qualified under Title I for free or reduced-price lunches. “Practically every kid who walked through that door got accepted,” claims Armstrong.
It wasn’t quite that simple. By and large, the neighborhood students who got into NEST were not coming from a troubled nearby school like P.S. 15—they were coming back to District 1 from Catholic schools or District 2 variances. The young flotsam from District 1’s shipwrecks could not possibly meet Chévere’s standards.
With the neighborhood’s neediest shut out, Lopez mounted a demonstration outside the school, and rumors spread that a human chain would disrupt opening day. Chévere was forced to do what she hated most: to compromise. She suspended her requirements and accepted ten additional students, mostly seventh-graders. Among them were Gladys Ortega’s daughter, Krystal, and her niece, Jasmin Aglada.
When school started, Chévere divided the seventh grade into the “A-class” and the “B-class.” The A-class had five children, most of them white. The B-class was composed of twenty or so students from the immediate neighborhood, nearly all of them Hispanic or black. Some of them were quick and able, if less than enamored with the NEST uniform (polo shirts and khaki slacks or skirts from the Lands’ End catalogue) and its Sisyphean homework loads; others lagged tragically in basic skills.
“It was clearly racial steering,” Mendez says. “I often wonder whether we did those kids any service. Their life was hell.”
The B-class became the principal’s white whale, her sour obsession. According to one of its teachers, Chévere would declare, “I’m going to torture them until they leave.” She ordered the B-class students cited for every conceivable infraction, no matter how picayune. “She told me to write up anyone for anything,” the teacher says. “If a kid looked tired, if he didn’t have a belt on, if his hair wasn’t washed …” Chévere forwarded the paper barrage to the Administration for Children’s Services. When besieged parents came to the school, the teacher says, Chévere held ACS over them as a threat: Withdraw their children, or else.
“For Celenia,” Armstrong allows, “one kid who couldn’t do the work was one kid too many.”
Not everyone was cowed. Jasmin Aglada, a ponytailed slip of a girl, says that Chévere “thought she could break me into pieces. Not me. I was going right at it with her.” Aglada was suspended three times that year. For a solid month, she used a windowsill for a desk in history class. When she and her classmates failed to do their homework, she says, Chévere would “call us stupid, worthless … that we’re going to work at McDonald’s mopping the floors.”
A number of the Lopez group somehow lasted two years, through the eighth grade. None stayed for the upper school.
Despite its rocky start, NEST’s early days seemed full of promise. Armstrong was working toward “a new paradigm of a quasi-public school” with true economic diversity, where “maybe 40 percent or half the kids were white” and “the haves would support the have-nots.” The PTA subsidized the annual senior trip to Italy for any student who couldn’t afford it. When Daniela Cassorla’s father died in October of her senior year, leaving her on her own with a grandmother with Alzheimer’s, NEST teachers and parents guided her through the college-application gauntlet. The PTA, said Cassorla, now at Columbia, “basically formed this family that I didn’t have.”