As light faded on the first arctic day of winter, a band of 40 die-hard parents huddled on Seventh Avenue, outside Region 9 headquarters of the Department of Education. Mostly white and middle-aged, armed with signs and certainty, they stood shivah for a dream foreclosed on the Lower East Side: the notorious NEST+m, a school for the best and brightest in all New York.
Braced against the slicing wind, they chanted against the ousting of their founding principal, the feared and revered Celenia Chévere, and grieved for the motto she once posted outside her office door:
A public school with a private-school mission.
The sign dripped with hubris, but it had wooed the striving classes well. Since the troubled birth of New Explorations Into Science, Technology & Math, in 2001, its parents had tithed body and soul and disposable income—for their children, to be sure, but also for the urban impossibility: a truly great public school. In NEST they’d found a hothouse with record test scores, free of the usual tawdry concessions—sardined classes, peeling paint, creeping illiteracy.
Now, after some nasty infighting and a crackdown by the chancellor, their school had been turned inside-out. For the old guard, everything precious seemed dead: small-group advisories, split-gender math and science, the Sarah Lawrence–size seminars, the prepster dress code. Demoralized, the stalwarts had coined a different sort of slogan: Just another DoE school.
When a school loses the culture that made it distinctive, “people imply that it’s a law of history … that it died a natural death,” says Deborah Meier, founder of the seminal alternative school Central Park East. “If we actually track it back, it may have been murdered.”
Last fall, as NEST imploded, its PTA president emeritus moved her son to a private high school. “I feel like I’ve been robbed,” says Emily Armstrong, “and there’s nothing I can do about it.” She has a theory about why NEST’s enemies sought to strangle it in the cradle and kept at it till they won.
“It’s all race and class,” she says wearily. “It’s nothing else but that.”
This is more than the story of a renegade educator or a bold experiment come undone. It’s about the push-and-pull between excellence and access—and about the unlucky children who get trampled along the way. Who owns the city’s schools? Was NEST a beacon of meritocracy, or an island of privilege that barred students who needed it most?
“NEST,” says Granville Leo Stevens, of the Independent Parent Organizations, “is an allegory.”
NEST was designed to help solve an age-old dilemma: how to keep what was left of the city’s middle class—with its skilled progeny and open checkbooks—inside a school system seen as second-rate. Without moneyed white people, went the presumption, the schools would flatline into irrevocable failure. The classic strategy was to keep funneling the most resources and best teachers to zoned schools in predominantly white areas. In mixed or changing neighborhoods, more of a sanctuary was needed: the gifted program.
In 2000, Chancellor Harold Levy hit upon another approach. Taking a page from the private model, Levy imagined a constellation of “rigorous” schools spanning kindergarten through twelfth grade, one for each borough. A K-12 would finesse the system’s weakest link: the stand-alone middle school, a torture chamber that sends many a middle-class family heading for the exits. NEST would be the chancellor’s prototype. He placed it in Community School District 1, a compact trapezoid in the Lower East Side and East Village that for years had bled its best students to District 2, its richer neighbor. Levy aimed to lure those families back with an innovative school to rival anything uptown.
The chancellor knew that his brainchild would need a lightning rod, a leader driven and unyielding. He chose Celenia Chévere, a petite firebrand with boundless energy, a blinding smile, and a hair-trigger temper. From her start as a lowly teacher’s assistant in the late seventies, she’d become one of the most coveted—and controversial—principals around.
After raising two daughters as a single mother (enrolling the younger one, at great sacrifice, at Calhoun), Chévere knew the value of a superior public school. In 1986, when a freestanding gifted program sounded radical, she founded Lower Laboratory in District 2. Ten years later, on East 106th Street, she opened the Young Women’s Leadership School, an oasis of Oriental carpets and nunnery quiet against the raging picket lines of now and the NYCLU. Yet despite her brilliance as a “starter,” Chévere never stayed in one place too long. She ran a building like Hubie Brown coached a basketball team, with an overbearing manner that soon wore thin. “If you did not conform,” says a source who worked with her in East Harlem, “she would destroy you.”
The principal was 55 years old when Levy called; she figured she had one start-up left in her. NEST would be her legacy.
To her devotees, Chévere offered something irresistible: a safe haven from mediocrity, without Dalton’s tuition or Larchmont’s taxes. Equal parts Mary Poppins and Captain Bligh, she believed that discipline and a spoonful of phonics could propel her charges to “leading roles in science, politics, and industry—indeed, in every realm of society,” as NEST’s “Mission and Vision Statement” grandly claimed. They would get there the old-fashioned way—though Chévere had studied at Bank Street, a progressive stronghold, she had come to favor traditional schooling over what she called “loosey-goosey” reformism. Her students diagrammed sentences and learned long division; NEST would be the first school in the city, public or private, to use the acclaimed Singapore Math.
For Levy and Chévere, the case for NEST was self-evident: a bright idea, an avid clientele.
Which made it all the more startling when it blew up in their faces.
For NEST, geography was destiny. At the time of the school’s birth, the Lower East Side was a stew of new Asian immigrants, working-class Puerto Ricans, the Jewish mandarins of Grand Street, and the nouveau-funk professional set lusting after a bargain co-op. But even as the neighborhood simmered and changed, one thing stayed the same: the feeble schools of District 1. The local school board, riven with political strife, was disinclined to provoke its constituents (or highlight its own failings) by allowing a seat of privilege to be dropped into the neighborhood. On January 30, 2001, the board voted to establish NEST as a “school of choice” for any district student, subject only to a lottery and racial quotas.
The resolution alarmed Chévere. For NEST to work as planned, she had no use for students from failing local schools; she needed children who matched her template: dogged workers who thrived on structure and racked up 3’s and 4’s (at or above grade level) on the standardized tests. How could she run a college-prep school without families committed to college? How could she guard her standards without winnowing wheat from chaff?
Although Chévere declined to be interviewed for this story, she wrote the following: NEST+m was designed to be a college-preparatory school with admissions standards … That part of the mission and vision was one of my non-negotiables and was very clear from the start.
But the hot-button issue was on the table: Who would get into NEST, and who would be left at the courtyard gate?
The first public meeting was held that spring at the site chosen for the fledgling K-12: Junior High School 22. Built in 1959 as a three-story Mondrian of blue and gray metal panels, it was twinned from the start to Baruch Houses, a mammoth high-rise project that opened the same year across Columbia Street. By the time NEST went on the drawing board, only a couple of hundred students were still warehoused at the junior high. Plexiglas windows bathed rats in a yellowish half-light; the parking lot was a drug bazaar. The school was ready to die, and be reborn.
As she listened to the speakers, Gladys Ortega, a day-care provider who lived at Baruch, could scarcely believe her good fortune. Her daughter and niece were heading into seventh grade, and now they’d have a fine new school across the street. At the meeting, she recalls, Councilwoman Margarita Lopez said, “‘The only reason I’m letting this school come in my district is because my kids deserve the best.’ And Celenia said, ‘I have no problem with that.’ We clapped, and we were so happy—we had a celebration.”
But Chévere most certainly did have a problem. With hindsight, the flashpoint was inscribed in fine and damning print on NEST’s brochure: “A K-12 College Preparatory School in RoHo.” Unfortunately, the Hispanic neck of the Lower East Side already had a name: Loisaida, the old Puerto Rican barrio. RoHo stood for “Right on Houston,” but Rosie Mendez—now the neighborhood’s councilwoman, then a Lopez aide—parsed another meaning: educational gentrification.
Over the next few months, Chévere did all she could to discourage the locals. Of two dozen sessions where NEST applications were distributed, twenty were held at the 14th Street Y, at the cusp of District 1 and the whiter, wealthier District 2. “It was like trying to catch a moonbeam,” says Margarita Rosa, executive director of the Grand Street Settlement. Rosa’s deputy, Pablo Tejada, ran a Beacon program after school and on weekends at JHS 22, serving close to 2,000 children, youth, and adults. Although he saw Chévere weekly that spring, Tejada says, he couldn’t get NEST brochures until after the deadline. When parents pressed to learn more about the school, Rosa says, they were “treated very, very rudely and given the runaround … It was an atmosphere that basically said, ‘Certain people need not apply.’”
Lopez was pushing for access to NEST. According to Armstrong, the councilwoman announced that every child at Baruch had a guaranteed spot at the new school. As summer approached and few acceptance letters made their way to the project, the backlash began: Leaflets blasted NEST as racist. There were death threats, and smashed windshields in the parking lot. “I’m one of them,” Chévere plaintively told the Times, referring to her Hispanic critics. “But they don’t see me as that. They see me as elitist.”
For those who’d watched students languish at the old junior high, it must have been unbearable to feel locked out as the renovated building filled with light and air and shiny programs. Their children had been cheated for too many years, and they laid claim to NEST as payment past due. “There’s a fitting sense of ownership between a community and a community school,” says Lisa Donlan, first vice-president of District 1’s Community Education Council. “And when the building is emptied out to put in something new, people feel that they’ve been displaced.”
In June 2001, the school board called upon NEST to rescind its 150 acceptance letters and hold a lottery, a stance supported by the NYCLU. Chévere—thanks to a loophole unearthed by Chad Vignola, the chancellor’s counsel—held firm; the admissions policy was her bedrock.
In actuality, even with the principal’s screens, NEST’s first class was fairly diverse. (If only by default. Middle-class white people tend to make for reluctant pioneers.) According to the DoE’s year-end register, 59 percent of its students lived in District 1. The school’s white population stood at 39 percent—far greater than the white contingent districtwide, but still leaving room for a good number of Hispanic and black working-class families from Loisaida, including a few from Baruch. More than 80 percent of the student body qualified under Title I for free or reduced-price lunches. “Practically every kid who walked through that door got accepted,” claims Armstrong.
It wasn’t quite that simple. By and large, the neighborhood students who got into NEST were not coming from a troubled nearby school like P.S. 15—they were coming back to District 1 from Catholic schools or District 2 variances. The young flotsam from District 1’s shipwrecks could not possibly meet Chévere’s standards.
With the neighborhood’s neediest shut out, Lopez mounted a demonstration outside the school, and rumors spread that a human chain would disrupt opening day. Chévere was forced to do what she hated most: to compromise. She suspended her requirements and accepted ten additional students, mostly seventh-graders. Among them were Gladys Ortega’s daughter, Krystal, and her niece, Jasmin Aglada.
When school started, Chévere divided the seventh grade into the “A-class” and the “B-class.” The A-class had five children, most of them white. The B-class was composed of twenty or so students from the immediate neighborhood, nearly all of them Hispanic or black. Some of them were quick and able, if less than enamored with the NEST uniform (polo shirts and khaki slacks or skirts from the Lands’ End catalogue) and its Sisyphean homework loads; others lagged tragically in basic skills.
“It was clearly racial steering,” Mendez says. “I often wonder whether we did those kids any service. Their life was hell.”
The B-class became the principal’s white whale, her sour obsession. According to one of its teachers, Chévere would declare, “I’m going to torture them until they leave.” She ordered the B-class students cited for every conceivable infraction, no matter how picayune. “She told me to write up anyone for anything,” the teacher says. “If a kid looked tired, if he didn’t have a belt on, if his hair wasn’t washed …” Chévere forwarded the paper barrage to the Administration for Children’s Services. When besieged parents came to the school, the teacher says, Chévere held ACS over them as a threat: Withdraw their children, or else.
“For Celenia,” Armstrong allows, “one kid who couldn’t do the work was one kid too many.”
Not everyone was cowed. Jasmin Aglada, a ponytailed slip of a girl, says that Chévere “thought she could break me into pieces. Not me. I was going right at it with her.” Aglada was suspended three times that year. For a solid month, she used a windowsill for a desk in history class. When she and her classmates failed to do their homework, she says, Chévere would “call us stupid, worthless … that we’re going to work at McDonald’s mopping the floors.”
A number of the Lopez group somehow lasted two years, through the eighth grade. None stayed for the upper school.
Despite its rocky start, NEST’s early days seemed full of promise. Armstrong was working toward “a new paradigm of a quasi-public school” with true economic diversity, where “maybe 40 percent or half the kids were white” and “the haves would support the have-nots.” The PTA subsidized the annual senior trip to Italy for any student who couldn’t afford it. When Daniela Cassorla’s father died in October of her senior year, leaving her on her own with a grandmother with Alzheimer’s, NEST teachers and parents guided her through the college-application gauntlet. The PTA, said Cassorla, now at Columbia, “basically formed this family that I didn’t have.”
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.
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.
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.
At the ELA retake, Jennifer says, there were about ten students in the room: the four or five from her special-ed class, taught by a Chévere favorite named Jennifer Wilen, and four or five more from the mainstreamed population who qualified for extra test time. Wilen sat among her students and read each multiple-choice question aloud, Jennifer says. Then she’d “let us guess, and if we circled the wrong one … she would say, ‘No, that’s wrong—b is the answer.’ I’d erase it and circle the b.” The mainstreamed students raced ahead, shouting answers to one another. (On the day of her state math test, according to Jennifer, the procedure changed a bit. Since Wilen was “a little dumbish about math,” the student says, “she asked the kids who took regular classes for the answer, and they would just tell us, and we would just circle down the answer.”)
Toward the end of the ELA test, Jennifer says, Wilen told her students to cover their tracks by erasing some correct answers and entering wrong ones: “We just erased like two, and that’s it—two answers.”
As it turned out, two erasures might have been conservative. Of ten NEST eighth-graders with special needs, all scored at or above grade level on the ELA that year. Their mean scaled score outshone their general-education schoolmates; it also surpassed the average for any general-ed eighth-grade class at all but three schools in the city. In the math test that year, Jennifer’s test group scored even higher. And NEST’s seventh-graders with special needs did better yet; all seven tallied 4’s on the ELA. (Wilen denies feeding students answers. Asked to explain the unusual scores, she first suggested that perhaps the eighth-graders “did a really good job cheating” on their own, then reconsidered, saying she had “trained those poor little kids beautifully” with a relentless regimen of ELA practice tests.)
When these test results were relayed to Robert Tobias, longtime chief of assessment for the old Board of Ed and now a research director at NYU’s Steinhardt School, his response was unqualified: “Based on a career of 30 years of looking at these kinds of data, I’ve never seen anything like that. It’s one in a million.”
Overall, NEST had a banner year in 2005. With 99 percent of its students scoring at or above the standard in English and 97 percent in math, it outranked all but a handful of schools. Even today, Chévere trumpets her “stellar track record”: “All my students achieved perfect to near-perfect scores on all standardized tests at all grade levels. I’m extremely proud of that achievement.”
But Jennifer derived no pleasure from her pair of 4’s. “If I don’t do something by myself, I’m not going to know it,” she says. That fall, glowing transcript in hand, she was placed in general-ed classes at Health Professions High School and soon fell hopelessly behind. She’s since transferred to a school in New Jersey, but her academic future—and goal of college—remains in doubt.
From the outside looking in, Chévere’s hell-bent drive to be “near-perfect”—and the liberties allegedly taken in pursuit of that goal—seem puzzling. Most students got into the school by testing well in the first place, after all, and the small special-needs group would have limited statistical impact. Under these circumstances, why would any principal push the envelope? While Lana saw the high scores as a “bragging point,” Randy traces a deeper motive for Chévere, a woman who’d burned so many bridges. If NEST performed well enough, it would be “untouchable,” the teacher says. “Her end goal was, ‘I’m going to make this school the best and shut everyone up.’”
And so she did, for a time. The numbers for Jennifer and her classmates leap off a spreadsheet, yet the school was not flagged or brought to account for them. Under Bloomberg and Klein and the senior DoE leadership known as Tweed, gaudy test scores are like the home-run records of the steroid era: great for marketing and certainly preferable to scandal. If one of the top-performing schools in the city was corrupt, what might that imply about the system’s overall progress (however thin) on the standardized tests? If scores could be rigged at such a high-profile school, who else might be fiddling?
With the DoE about to gut the regions and their middle management in favor of “empowerment” and “school support organizations,” NEST serves as a cautionary tale about the peril of weak oversight. Throughout the system, principals will be gaining unprecedented autonomy. They will answer only to Tweed—and Tweed is pleased, first and last, by rising test scores. Last week’s tentative pact with the principals union, featuring bonuses of up to $25,000 for high performance, is a case in point. Simply put, less-scrupulous principals will have both motive and opportunity to fudge on the standardized tests.
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.
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.