New Lessons in Class

NEST school kerfuffle pits working class, one rich visionary against slightly privileged middle tier

  Courtney Sale Ross swept through the front door of a Lower East Side school on a May afternoon, an entourage trailing. A wealthy philanthropist in the education game, she had arrived to tour the building where city officials want to place her latest project, the Ross Global Academy Charter School. These days, the building houses only the public school NEST, vaguely short for New Explorations Into Science, Technology, and Math. Her charter school wouldn't open until fall, but NEST parents say Ross seemed to be treating the building as her own.

"Courtney Ross walked our halls and didn't even make eye contact with us," says PTA president Michelle Buffington, whose three children attend the kindergarten-through-12th-grade NEST. She and several other parents happened to be present when their likely neighbor showed up with architects and officials. Ross was supposed to see an area chosen for her by NEST staff. But she ended up inspecting the entire building, ordering measurements and pictures.

"She would go into a classroom and say, 'Oh, I like the light here. Take a measure,'" says Abby Horowitz, a PTA leader and mother of two, who tagged along with the crowd. At one point, Ross stepped into an administrator's office and declared it "cute." Photos were snapped, dimensions recorded.

According to city officials, NEST is at 44 percent capacity, with plenty of room for the Ross Global Academy.
photo: Willie Davis/Veras for the Village Voice
According to city officials, NEST is at 44 percent capacity, with plenty of room for the Ross Global Academy.

"It was like she was shopping at Saks," Horowitz adds.

For the parents, Ross's visit felt more like a raid, a hostile takeover of the carefully cultivated school for gifted-and-talented students. The scene served to remind them why they have opposed the city's plan to place Ross Global at NEST since learning of it in April. They say that there is no room in their building for another school and that sharing space will jeopardize coveted programs. They've held rallies at City Hall; printed "Save the NEST" T-shirts; created a website; dogged Schools Chancellor Joel Klein; and inundated politicians with calls, letters, and e-mails. The PTA has filed a lawsuit in Manhattan Supreme Court against the city's department of education.

Klein and his staff have held firm, insisting the building has plenty of room. They say that the facility can hold almost double the 732 students now enrolled at NEST and that the arrangement will only last two years, a standard incubation period for charter schools. Currently, 22 of the city's 47 charter schools—independent public schools operating outside the traditional curriculum—share space in school buildings. By fall, the plan is to double-bunk another 10, including Ross Global.

Unless NEST parents can stop it, that is. As their campaign has progressed, it has taken on distinct class overtones. NEST families—mostly middle-class, from around the Lower East Side—find themselves pitted against Courtney Ross, the multimillionaire widow of Time Warner chief Steven Ross, who owns posh homes on the Upper East Side and in East Hampton and moves among the famous and filthy rich. The parents have tried to appeal to her—for instance, publishing an open letter in the staid East Hampton Star that urged her to "withdraw from the plan to install the Ross charter school at NEST."

Says Emily Armstrong, of the PTA, "We're up against someone worth millions, and everyone knows money talks in this town, right?"

True, Ross is loaded, twice landing on the Forbes list of the 400 wealthiest Americans. But this tale of class warfare isn't simple. As the founder of Ross Global, she has reached out to underserved New York City kids, mostly minority and poor. And their parents have been pulled into the battle. The PTA's lawsuit challenges Klein's decision not only to site the academy in the building, but also to grant it a charter. Ross parents see an irony in this fight—it is NEST parents who seem privileged, they say, Ross democratic. According to city statistics, 6 percent of Ross students are white, compared with 55 percent of NEST students. At Ross, 56 percent of students qualify for free lunch; at NEST, it's 19.

NEST mother Michelle Buffington: "Parents have dedicated themselves to this school with their hearts and souls."
photo: Willie Davis/Veras for the Village Voice

"NEST parents say Courtney Ross is getting all she wants because she's rich," observes Norma Perez of the Lower East Side, a single mom whose daughter plans to attend sixth grade at Ross Global in the fall. "But I say, 'More power to her.' She wants to give my child a chance."

Ross, who has hired a big Manhattan law firm to defend the school in the PTA case, refuses to play the class card. In an e-mail interview facilitated by her publicist, she declined to address the notion that she's a rich person throwing influence around. "I cannot speculate on the perceptions of NEST parents," she writes.

She does stress her future school's demographics, sending statistics and then updates. As of last week, Ross Global has enrolled 133 students. Of them, 89 are black or Hispanic. "We are an inclusive school," she writes, "not an exclusive school."

When it comes to her philosophy, as her supporters like to call it, Ross has never been one for exclusivity. A former art curator and filmmaker, she got her start in education back in 1991. That's when she and her late husband founded a private school in East Hampton for their daughter, Nicole, now 23. In part, the couple wanted to get her away from the rarefied atmosphere of Upper East Side preps. In a sense, the Ross School has avoided the elite scene. More than half of its 500 or so students receive scholarships, totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. Ross foots the bill.
Next Page »