New Lessons in Class

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

PTA leaders presented this research to department officials and were rebuffed. They offered a list of 10 nearby alternative sites for Ross Global, all ignored. They claim they had no choice but to sue. "We believe there was some kind of private dealing between Chancellor Klein and Courtney Ross," says Lawrence Gottleib, of Scarsdale, the parents' attorney. He hopes the hearings will uncover a link, "a personal relationship between the two."

The education department denies the charge, as does Ross—"categorically no" is how she puts it. Both insist Klein chose NEST because it's in one of the least crowded buildings on the Lower East Side. According to city officials, NEST is at 44 percent capacity, while some nearby schools are at 94 percent. By their calculations, the build-ing has room for 1,407 students, but 975 students will enroll there next fall. Add the 160 Ross students, says Garth Harries, of the Office of New Schools, and "there will be still plenty of extra space." In a May 16 letter to parents, Harries lays out how NEST will retain enough space for small class sizes and special programs, with an eventual 47 classrooms and 10 offices. Ross Global, by contrast, will have 11 and two.

The department says NEST parents and staff have enjoyed quite a lot of space, for quite a long time. The city has tried to place other charter schools in the building, only to meet with resistance. Now, NEST's effort to maintain control has reached a new dimension, officials say. In an April 10 letter to parents, Harries said he suspected the school had violated admissions rules by scrambling to admit dozens of extra students in September to beef up enrollment and lay claim to more turf. He said he has received reports that staff members were shuffling students from classroom to classroom during an April site visit to make them appear full.

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.

The department has called for an inquiry.

Charges Harries, "This is about a school community's desire for exclusive access to public resources. But it's our building, and we're going to use it to benefit as many public school kids as possible."

Courtney Sale Ross
photo: courtesy of Courtney Sale Ross
There's no doubt that NEST parents have a deep sense of ownership. They talk about giving their lives over to help the school, working there all day, every day. "Parents have dedicated themselves to this school with their hearts and souls," says Buffington, the PTA president.

And then there is the money. Armstrong, who served on the school design team in 2000 and who founded the PTA, walks through the halls pointing out parent-funded amenities.

"We bought this Ikea furniture," she notes, motioning to benches outside classrooms. Further along on the first floor, she opens the door to a small yet substantial kitchen, equipped with stove, dishwasher, and refrigerator. "It's completely parent money," she says, as a teacher and students bake cookies.

Entering the library, Armstrong offers, "Most of this room was paid for by parents."

All told, NEST parents have raised an estimated $600,000 to refurbish the building at 111 Columbia Street, once a failing middle school. Other big-ticket items include a 12-camera surveillance system, a basketball court, and exercise rooms. Unlike many public schools, they have set up a fundraising arm for capital improvements, dubbed the NEST Egg. "The DOE says we don't own this building," Armstrong has tells the Voice. "Let me tell you, I do own it. I own this carpeting and this lighting and this air-conditioning. We feel like we own this school because we do."

She and other parents bristle at what they consider injustices. Ross Global not only gets to share space in their building—leasing it from the department for $1 a year— but it gets to use their security, gym, cafeteria, library, nurse, and custodians. Worse, the department has given Ross—a woman rich enough to buy her own building, they point out—the cream of classrooms, leaving NEST staff to try to convert old, dingy locker rooms in the basement. "Is that fair?" NEST parent Gasco asks. "Not really."

Put that way, maybe not. But Ross parents, who feel caught in a nasty turf war, find the complaints about inequities petty. Especially when you consider who will be sitting in those classrooms—their children. They say NEST operates more like a private than public school, since only 32 percent of its students come from the local district. Now that a new charter school is opening here, their kids have a chance at a better education. That NEST parents would refuse to share a building paid for mainly by city taxpayers infuriates them.

"This isn't a building for the selected few. It's for all children of the city," says Elias Rodriguez, of the Lower East Side, whose two girls will attend Ross Global. "No one should have a monopoly on the city's public resources."

Talk with Ross parents and they'll tell you they don't especially care where Ross Global is located. They entered their kids in the lottery for this charter school because of its curriculum, not its location. And after years of looking for a good public school in the area—for energetic teachers, say, or a safe environment—they've found a place that excites them. They speak just as passionately about their school as NEST parents do, ticking off the attractions. How the school will assess the "whole child," not just the test taker. How it'll focus on the history of all cultures, not just Western. How it'll teach Chinese and art and music and media.

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