New Lessons in Class

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

Over the years, she has used part of her Time Warner fortune to fulfill her vision of a 21st-century school, complete with meditation courts, digital movie labs, and galleries of Asian, African, and Western art reproductions. Her students take field trips to Greece, lunch on Thai food in the cafeteria, and play in a gym with an eco-friendly bamboo floor. Much of what happens at the academy stems from the theory of "multiple intelligences," which holds that traditional tests measure only one type of intelligence, while other types are demonstrated through, say, painting. A focus on cultural history and a global worldview are mainstays. Technology, art, and music play prominent roles.

The Ross School, says a source who worked there, "was always like an experiment for trying out her ideas."

Ross says she has always wanted to bring her approach to another set of kids. "I'm philosophically, morally, and ethically committed to public schools," she tells the Voice. "I believe more children should have the advantage of the Ross educational approach, and there's more need in public schools."

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.

Hence the Ross Global Academy, her first public charter school, founded in collaboration with New York University. By 2004, says Joe McDonald, of NYU's education school, Ross had "already gotten involved in what I call the 'scaling up' business." She has established an academy in Sweden, and plans schools in Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

In New York, Ross says she requested the Lower East Side partly to help poor children and partly to be near NYU. Since receiving the charter in January, Ross staff members have scoured the neighborhood recruiting kids. From Alphabet City to the Brooklyn Bridge, they've visited public schools, churches, and community centers, passing out glossy brochures in English, Chinese, and Spanish. This spring, Ross Global received 375 applications for 160 slots. On September 6, the school expects to open its doors with four classes, in kindergarten, first, fifth, and sixth grades. By 2007, it'll have 250 students, expanding each year until it reaches 12th grade.

Supporters call Ross an educational visionary bent on transforming the way kids learn. As the former employee notes, "This is her legacy. She wants to create a new model."

NEST student: "Everybody is nice to each other, and the things we learn are interesting, and everything is the way it's supposed to be."
photo: Willie Davis/Veras for the Village Voice
NEST has its own model too. It admits students based on such selective criteria as test scores and interviews. In 2005, 99 percent of NEST students excelled on standardized tests in English, compared with 49 percent of students citywide. In math, it was 97 percent, versus 45.

Visit "the NEST," as parents call it, and you find kindergartners playing in the courtyard, sixth-graders practicing fencing, and 10th-graders composing poetry. Their maps, essays, and paintings cover the halls. On a recent Friday, the 330 or so students in the lower grades gathered in the auditorium, belting out lyrics to their new school song.

On the eastern side of the island of Manhattan

There's a school set apart from the rest

Where the principal concern

Is we learn to love to learn

It is NEST, it is NEST, it is NEST

The kids gush over their oasis. Ariana, a freckled fourth-grader dressed in a NEST polo shirt, describes it as her "dream school." She says, "Everybody is nice to each other, and the things we learn are interesting, and everything is the way it's supposed to be."

Alex, a sixth-grader, explains that he worked hard to get into this school while attending another one on the Upper East Side last year. He felt bored there, he says, so he did some research into NEST. "I looked at the curriculum and I said, 'Wow, these kids are smart. This is where I want to be.'" He adds, "It's really great here."

Students worry this happy equilibrium will be lost if the Ross kids move into their building. "The school has a real comfy feel now," Alex says. "But if Ross kids come here, there will be barriers and divisions. It won't be the same."

Ariana seconds that. "What if the Ross kids are loud? What if there is too much confusion?" she wonders. "I'm worried about what's going to happen to this school."

So are their parents, who speak of feeling "goosebumps" and "electricity" about what their children learn. Parents populate the sunlit, airy building about as much as their kids do. The PTA office is papered with protest signs reading "DOE bad karma" and "Toss Ross." One features a mug shot of Klein, duplicated nine times with devil's horns or whiskers or a red X on the forehead.

Parents say their fight comes down to saving their school's integrity. "We feel very passionately about the fact that we need to keep this vision going for our kids," explains Lou Gasco, a named plaintiff whose son is a first-grader. Gasco has produced spreadsheets and schematics to show how the department's plan would harm NEST. According to his data, sharing classrooms with Ross Global would force students in the older grades into bigger classes, from an average of 22 students to 31. It'd also make for fewer foreign language, college preparatory, and same-gender math and science courses.

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