Although Chévere was not technically “empowered,” she always functioned ahead of the curve. The region had a minimal presence in her building, the teachers union none at all. And her hubris worked for her—until it didn’t. Until she made one enemy too many, and lost her protection like a Soprano thrust into the cold.
In the end, Chévere wasn’t torpedoed by fishy test scores, or parent backlash, or a palace coup by her harried staff. Her downfall would come via the cousins and friends and little brothers of the children she’d staved off all these years. She’d be done in by the least-powerful people in Loisaida.
As in many a denouement in New York, this one centered on real estate. Because NEST grew incrementally, adding grades each year, the DoE kept insisting that 111 Columbia Street was underutilized. The school countered that sharing space would overload its classrooms and sabotage its unique programming. Three times the building was slotted for co-tenancy. Three times the PTA circled its wagons and held off the onslaught.
And then, a year ago, came a more-formidable invader: Ross Global Academy. The battle was great theater while it lasted, class warfare behind a scrim of cognitive dissonance. In one corner, the platinum-coiffed Courtney Ross, two-time member of the Forbes 400, now paladin of the Lower East Side families she’d recruited for her charter school; in the other, NEST’s pugnacious principal, a generation removed from poverty in Puerto Rico, now raising the moat at her middle-class bastion.
In truth, the two groups were set apart by what they held in common: an uphill quest for a decent education. Charter schools, says Clara Hemphill, author of New York City’s Best Public High Schools, “represent for the African-American community what gifted programs represent to middle-class people on the Upper West Side—that is, a chance to get out of chaotic neighborhood schools.”
Playing their zero-sum game, the NEST community jitneyed to picket Ross’s school in East Hampton and stalked the mayor at City Hall. More than 500 parents and students banged drums and maracas outside Cipriani Wall Street, where Klein was keynoting the black-tie Graham Windham Bicentennial Ball. The PTA officers filed a lawsuit—not merely to challenge the “hostile takeover,” but to revoke Ross’s charter.
On the home front, the stress was getting to Chévere. “There were times I thought, This is crazy, she is out of control. Someone has got to rein this woman in,” Amanda Uprichard says. Parents were advised that blue pens no longer sufficed at the security desk sign-in. Only black ink would do.
When the DoE’s auditors came to check the school’s capacity last spring, according to Tweed, Chévere shuttled students from class to class, à la Mack Sennett, to show there was no room at the inn. It became clear, Klein says, that the principal “was not leading the school in good faith. Look, nobody likes to share space, but we have space needs—we’re in this as a city.” Improbably, NEST had made Courtney Ross an underdog. Even those allergic to charter schools wondered if NEST’s parents, deep down, feared that their darlings would get jostled en route to algebra by some poor black and Latin children. (It didn’t help when a reporter overheard a young NESTer ask his father, “Will the Ross kids be loud?”)
The game was up when NEST enlisted its godfather, the one person who could trump Bloomberg and Klein: Sheldon Silver. By a matter of yards, NEST fell inside the Assembly Speaker’s home district—geography turned destiny once more. With Silver controlling the fate of a bill to lift the charter school cap, a mayoral fixation, Klein couldn’t afford to antagonize him. (According to Armstrong, the line in the sand was drawn at a tense meeting in the NEST library: “Shelly stood up and pointed to Houston Street and said, ‘My district ends here, Joel.’”)
Finally, the chancellor blinked, sticking Ross into a guest room at his Tweed Courthouse. Victory, though, was Pyrrhic for NEST. “The chancellor was so pissed at Celenia that she was gone,” says a former Chévere supervisor. “How can you run the system if a principal can defy you like that?” Last June, the DoE disclosed that Chévere had been charged with misconduct—in connection with her building’s audit—and that her tenure at NEST was done.
Under Chévere, NEST was just “too good,” Armstrong says. “Other schools hated her because she made them look bad. She made the chancellor look bad, and she made District 2 look bad—all the wrong people.”
The 61-year-old principal had already filed for retirement, so she left with her pension intact. And even in exile, she would have a last laugh. When results of the 2006 standardized tests came in last fall, 99 percent of NEST’s students, grades three through eight, had scored at or above the standard in English. In math, the school did better yet: a perfect 100 percent. It was a sterling performance, better than Anderson, or Lower Lab, or any other school in the city. Chévere had finally reached the mountaintop, by hook or by crook.