New York prints an amusing article about a new elite public school on Avenue D in the Lower East Side:
NEST+m: An Allegory
The “Stuyvesant of the East” has become one of the most sought-after public schools in the city. It got that way by leaving much of the public out.
By Jeff Coplon
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.”
So, how do you get high test scores? Step one: Keep the local kids from applying.
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.” …
Step two: Drive out low-performers who get in.
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.
Step three: recruit.
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.’”
Step four: cheat.
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.