The winds changed that November, when Korus challenged Chévere over the principal’s midyear cancellation of an after-school program. As chair of the PTA’s after-school committee, Korus said she flouted a gag order and called a parent meeting on the issue. She didn’t yet realize it, but she’d stepped over a fateful line. (As Robin Dillon, another parent who crossed swords with Chévere, would say, “They had a good list for families and a bad list, but I didn’t find that out until we got on the bad list.”) Less than two weeks later, Gordon came home with his first “student alert.” During snack in the yard, the kindergarten teacher wrote, Gordon yanked on the hood of a classmate’s coat…
Three days later came another notice: Gordon was given an extended time-out in art class for shouting out 4 times.
And a week after that: Gordon was found mutilating an eraser. Further he showed no remorse.
And twelve days after that: Gordon threw Legos at a classmate.
L’affaire Lego led to a sit-down with the assistant principal and the school psychologist, Korus says, “where they told us [Gordon] needed serious psychological testing.” Her son was a fidgety, outgoing, physically playful boy, not exactly a NEST poster child. But he hadn’t been tagged as a problem, according to Korus, until after she transgressed.
The blizzard resumed: Gordon put a paper clip in his mouth and refused to take it out. He disrupted class meetings by “making shapes with his body similar to yoga positions.” He took his shoes off repeatedly; he touched other children’s shoes. On March 14, 2005, after a superheroes game in the courtyard, another kindergartner complained that Gordon had hit him. Though no injury was reported, Chévere leveled a four-day in-school suspension on the 5-year-old. He spent the balance of the week segregated from his classmates, even at lunch.
After that, his mother says, Gordon’s “self-esteem was a mess.” That fall, they moved their sons to P.S. 110, “just two blocks and a world away from NEST,” Korus says. Mostly Hispanic, their new school logs the best test scores of any non-screened school in District 1. And Gordon, Korus says, has gotten back to his old self, though it took him a while to adjust. For the first month or two, he’d come home each day and proudly announce, “Mom, I didn’t go to the principal’s office!”
When Korus looks back at NEST, and at the demoralized parents she knew there, she remembers their “unspoken fear … that if the NEST thing didn’t work out, they were going to have to move or to put their kid in private school.” Therein lay Chévere’s leverage: middle-class desperation.
It wasn’t easy being principal of the Stuyvesant of the East. The creaming and racial profiling, the purging of the slow or troublesome, the two-week immersion preps before standardized exams—all had jacked up NEST’s scores, but none guaranteed supremacy. To go from good to great called for sterner measures.
On the afternoon of the eighth-grade state ELA exam in January 2004, a middle-school teacher—who asked that her name be withheld to protect her current job with the DoE—stopped by the principal’s conference room to say good-night. Seated around the rich dark-wood table, she recalls, were the principal and her administrative cadre. Spilled out before them were stacks of ELA test booklets and the original answer sheets, says this teacher, whom we’ll call Randy. No one seemed to be bothered by the DoE protocol that finished tests be promptly sealed and sent off to the region.
As Randy moved to leave, Chévere told her, “‘You’re not going home. You’re going to stay and help us look over all the kids’ answers,’” she says. “I felt very much like they were asking me to change answers, and I refused.” The conversation ended—and so, a few months later, did Randy’s career at NEST.
We cannot know exactly what Chévere and her staff were doing that afternoon, but the school’s numbers give pause. On the 2003 ELA, 35 percent of NEST’s eighth-graders tested at or above grade level, not much better than the citywide average. In 2004, the school’s new crop of eighth-graders—the ones whose tests were allegedly “looked over” by Chévere’s staff—made a quantum leap. Of 31 students, all but one—or 97 percent—met the standard.
The following year, a special-education student named Jennifer, who asked that her last name be withheld, got some unusual marching orders from the NEST office. In January 2005, she says, she was told to stay home on the day of the eighth-grade ELA exam. Randy, the former middle-school teacher, says this was common practice at NEST; special-needs students would take the test instead on a makeup day, with no outside monitors present.