On an assessment day for kindergarten hopefuls, the tension in the room “was just explosive,” says Sean Grover, a psychotherapist who worked with dozens of NEST families. “The competitiveness of the parents to get their kids into that school—I don’t think there’s anything like it.”
Generally speaking, there are two ways to grow a school with great “numbers,” as they say in the trade. One is the Jaime Escalante approach: to spur children at all levels to excellence, as in Stand and Deliver. At Harlem Village Academy, a charter school with an open lottery, nine of ten students live at or near the poverty line. Most enter at least two years behind grade level. Last year, 96 percent of the seventh-graders passed the state math test.
The other path, taken by all gifted schools and many others, is to cherry-pick the top students. Educators use an evocative word for this process: creaming. At NEST, according to Lana, a former middle-school teacher who asked that her full name be withheld because she still works in the system, sixth-grade applicants from low-performing schools in District 1 were scratched on the spot: “We were told to just mark it and they would be weeded out right away.”
Last November, in a DoE leak if ever there was one, a Times article exposed what Klein called a “stark and different” favoritism in NEST’s use of parent interviews. At issue were some provocative notes in NEST files for rejected kindergarten hopefuls: Dad has limited English. Student has serious health concerns—not a match. For critics, here was proof that Chévere’s social Darwinism shut out immigrants, the disabled, and any mother of three who could not “juggle her life for our vision.”
As unsavory as all of this might seem, however, it was business as usual among the city’s selective schools. Principals know the perquisites of affluence, from tutors and fancy preschools to better prenatal care. They want to share the bounty of that wealth, namely the higher scores that flow from it. “School people have really clumsy and crude indices for guessing how kids are going to do,” notes Norm Fruchter, the author of Urban Schools, Public Will. “So they use family characteristics as a proxy.”
NEST wasn’t exceptional in this, merely brazen. When Katy Stokes brought in her son for an assessment in 2004, a glance at her application told the tale: a Swarthmore grad married to a Williams alum, both attorneys, good Chelsea address. Before a word could be uttered about seamless curricula, the interviewer lent Stokes a peek at her notation. There it was, the key to a golden door: A perfect fit.
Though Chévere was often denounced in District 1 as a racist, “I don’t think she was,” says Dolores Schaefer, former president of the district’s school board. “But she definitely was class-oriented.” In any case, no principals need policy to freeze out the darker or poorer; their screens do it for them, as surely as water finds its level. Until Klein’s dream of “1,400 great schools” is realized, the hunt for a good one will remain a round of musical chairs. For every seat taken by a Katy Stokes, a less-than-perfect fit will find herself on the floor. The music quickened at NEST after Klein anointed it a gifted-and-talented school in 2005, and the de facto became official. By spring 2006, its District 1 population would fall to just 24 percent.
To hurry the trend, the administration evicted those deemed too lazy or urban or rambunctious. (As hard as we tried, Chévere wrote, we weren’t successful with every child.) Every selective school “counsels out,” but few seemed to do so with such frequency or gusto. At Insideschools.org, Pamela Wheaton says, “We got more complaints from parents about NEST than about any other school in the city.”
I spoke with half a dozen families whose stays at NEST ended badly in the Chévere era. They all told variations of the same harrowing account, of draconian discipline and crushed spirits. In the lower school, the pressure ratcheted up as a child approached third grade, the first standardized-test year; there was zero tolerance for late bloomers. Black and Latino boys were disproportionately targeted, a pattern confirmed by teachers who were there. Chévere’s bludgeon of choice, they agreed, was the “student-alert notice.” If the principal “didn’t like the student or the student’s family,” says Lana, “she would … come in and say, ‘You need to send home a student-alert letter, and it needs to be about x, y, and z.’”
Roberta Korus and Stephen Ward seemed like perfect fits: an entertainment lawyer and a Mercy College professor, the model white professional couple. Their son Ben entered NEST in 2002, and the couple was so impressed that they moved back to the Lower East Side from Astoria. Their second son, Gordon, enrolled in 2004.