Still, she paid a price for her defiance: the juice to anoint a successor and preserve the culture she’d created. She’d made the fatal error of believing her own motto. Under Chévere, Klein says, “the NEST people were used to getting their way, as if this were almost something in the nature of a private school, and it’s not. It’s a public school.”
Olga Livanis, Tweed’s choice as NEST’s new sheriff, is bloodless and oblique: the anti-Chévere. A former assistant principal at Stuyvesant, she’s a company woman who goes strictly by the book. But in her quiet way, Livanis is doing what she can to exorcise her predecessor’s stubborn ghost. After a raucous PTA meeting last fall, Livanis had the cops called to clear the building, and then triggered a DoE audit of the PTA’s books. In January, in a moment fraught with symbolism, Livanis ejected Emily Armstrong, the school’s very first “pioneer parent,” from the building as Armstrong stuffed envelopes for a senior-class fund-raiser.
It’s only a matter of time before the rest of the Chéveristas move on or age out. The families who stay may find a gentler place, if a more conventional one. Whatever her flaws, the founding principal had “a very clear vision,” Elizabeth Langwith says, “and I haven’t seen that yet from [the Livanis] administration.”
As the dust settled at NEST, Klein unveiled a policy to inject “reliable standards” into admissions for the gifted-and-talented sector. Beginning this fall, all gifted schools and programs, including NEST, will be using the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test, or olsat, given in nine languages, and, secondarily, the Gifted Rating Scales, an early-childhood teacher evaluation. The new process will be “a huge leap forward” in fairness and transparency, according to the DoE.
Yet while everyone likes equity, it’s not clear that Klein’s road map will get us there. To begin with, objectivity and fairness are two different things. (The entrance test for Stuyvesant is purely objective, yet it hardly seems fair that only 3 percent of its students are Hispanic and 2 percent are black.) Though Tweed doesn’t advertise the fact, the olsat is an IQ test. And like virtually all IQ tests, as Tobias notes, it boosts children from the “majority” culture (the white middle class) and handicaps those from the inner city—no matter if they take it in Spanish or Haitian Creole or Bengali.
So what is a chancellor to do? Racist inequities in our society are so vast and deeply rooted that any selective institution will reflect them. Absent a mass campaign to recruit disadvantaged students, the typical gifted classroom will continue to resemble Cape Town circa 1985. Good intentions notwithstanding, a by-the-numbers admissions won’t magically integrate next fall’s kindergarten at NEST or anyplace else.
These days, according to the DoE register, NEST is about as diverse as the other top gifted enclaves in the city. As of March 16, white students were 57 percent of the school’s population. Asian students accounted for 21 percent, while the Hispanic and black contingents—who represent nearly three-quarters of New York’s public-school population—had dropped to a combined 22 percent. At last count, barely one in five students hailed from District 1. Under Klein’s new admissions process, in fact, NEST is barred from giving preference to children from the neighborhood.
Of the many NEST parents I met, old guard or new, few voiced much concern about their growing homogenization. They steered me instead to the undercounting of their mixed-race families, or to the 29 languages spoken in the building. One lower-school parent, an Asian psychoanalyst, tells me that her best friends at NEST include a Cuban-American magazine editor and a black bank officer who speed-skates on the weekends. “We had this big joke,” the woman says, “that we’re not the kind of diversity this neighborhood wants.”
Gentrification has done its work swiftly inside the squarish building on Columbia Street. It took all of seven years for NEST to morph from dumping ground to avant-garde vision to another gated community for the multiethnic, middle-class elite. Meanwhile, District 1 struggles on. In 15 of its 24 schools, a majority of students tested below grade level in English last year, on their way to the wrong side of the city’s grim 50 percent graduation rate. The schools’ ancient assumption—that a rising middle-class tide would lift all boats—has never seemed more dubious than it does today near Houston and Avenue D.