Armstrong kicked off each parent orientation with a blunt reminder: Public education is not free. To help raise $100,000 per year, each family was prodded to give at least $500 or the equivalent in labor. The money paid for state-of-the-art science labs, Ikea benches in the hallways, air conditioners in every classroom. For a big job, like a $30,000 makeover of the lunchroom, Armstrong would tap one of her Wall Street “high rollers,” and—voilà!—a college-style cafeteria came to be.
A visiting principal was bowled over by a jewelry studio with an acetylene-torch station: “I’ve never seen that in the DoE; I’ve never seen that in a vocational program. The dance studio was awesome—there were five girls doing classical ballet, and whoever was teaching them knew what the hell they were doing. They have a room dedicated to displaying student art—it’s damn near like a museum.”
There were smaller touches, too: incandescent lighting, scented candles, flowers and mini palm trees, wall trim in gray and lavender. Lavatories sparkled. Late in the day, if she found a scuffed custom floor tile (despite her rule that all students wear sneakers), Chévere could be spied rubbing out the mark with her foot. Here, she liked to say, was “a school I would have wanted my daughters to attend.”
She had no bigger fan than Levy’s successor, Joel Klein. As parents remember it, Klein hoisted a glass of wine at a school reception that first spring, declaring, “I wish all schools could be like NEST, and I wish all my principals could be like Celenia.”
True, the place could seem icily surreal at times, a nigh-Stepford production. You didn’t go up the down staircase at NEST. No food was flung at the NEST Café; no teenage couples dared hug in the hallways. Chévere knew each child on a first-name basis and each grade on that child’s last report card. She ruled her kingdom with an iron fist inside a chain-mail glove. “You think I’m the Wicked Witch of the West?” she’d say. “I’m the Wicked Witch of the West, East, North, and South all together, because I care about your future.” She wasn’t one for wiggle room. Bring your 5-year-old three minutes after the 8:15 bell, and you’d get bawled out by the principal for all to hear. (“Every morning was a heart attack,” says Elizabeth Langwith, one tardy mother.) Let your adolescent girl go without socks one day, and she’d be verbally garroted by the dean of discipline. It wasn’t rare, after dismissal, to see a child sobbing outside the building within a circle of friends, the day’s hurts spilling over.
But the old guard saw no evil: They kept their eyes on the carrot strung to the principal’s stick. Chévere “really cared about those kids—a lot,” says Lisa Ludwig, whose daughter moved to NEST from City and Country. “She used to say, ‘Your world is getting harder and harder. You can get into the college of your choice, but you have to do the work. You have to be the best.’”
“Celenia took regular kids and made them into gifted and talented kids,” says Armstrong, whose own daughter is now thriving at Wesleyan. “She gave them discipline and standards and Singapore Math … all the things that were her hallmarks.”
Or as Amanda Uprichard puts it, “Celenia was like a rock star, and we all were like her bandmates.”
In the savvy-parent grapevine, no strong school stays secret for long. By NEST’s second year, 400 applicants vied for 75 spots in the ninth grade alone. In year three, middle-class families poured in from private schools, brownstone Brooklyn, even haughty District 2. District 1’s share ebbed to 40 percent, while the proportion of free-lunch students dropped by half.
“She wanted that look,” a former NEST teacher says. “I remember a meeting where Celenia said, ‘We need to get more Asian kids. We want to look good when people walk around [on tour], and we want to have the higher math scores.’”
For Chévere, the shifting demographic paid dividends. After logging mediocre scores in its first two years, NEST soared in the standardized tests in 2004, with 92 percent earning 3’s or 4’s in English Language Arts (ELA) and 90 percent in math. It was around then, the same teacher says, that the principal took to crowing about her “Stuyvesant of the East.”
In its fourth year, NEST reached a tipping point: a white population of 53 percent. For the first time, District 2 students outnumbered those from District 1, and by a large margin; a sixth-grade teacher dismissed the bulk of her class for car-service pickup to the Upper East Side. It was as plain as the row of student-body photographs outside the PTA room, with less contrast year by year. NEST had become an upper-middle-class enclave—and a hot ticket.