By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
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.
"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 schoolsindependent public schools operating outside the traditional curriculumshare 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 familiesmostly middle-class, from around the Lower East Sidefind 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 herfor 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 fightit 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."
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."
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
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.
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.
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
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 buildingleasing 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 Rossa woman rich enough to buy her own building, they point outthe 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 classroomstheir 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 areafor energetic teachers, say, or a safe environmentthey'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.
Perez, the mother of the future sixth-grader, read about all the things the Ross school will offer and filed an application instantly. "We come from a poor background, and my daughter's school doesn't have a lot to offer," she says. When she heard that her daughter had won a slot last month, she adds, "I was ecstatic."
Now the PTA suit could cause the loss of the entire Ross Global charter.
"NEST parents are literally trying to put the Ross school out of business," says Daniel Greenberg, an attorney representing Ross. When the school received its charter in January, he notes, nobody at NEST sued. "If tomorrow Ross were to say, 'We will leave,'which it won't donobody at NEST would continue to say, 'Wait, there are technical difficulties to your charter.'"
At court hearings this month, parents from both schools packed into courtrooms, spilling out from the benches into the hall. They separated into sections, each sizing up the other. At times, sparks have flown.
Once, during a break, two Ross parents huddled, whispering about what they described as the insanity of NEST's suit. A NEST parent leaned in and interjected, "What about what your school is doing to our kids?"
"Why do you have to challenge the charter?" one Ross parent retorted.
Another NEST parent scolded, "Stop being so antagonistic!"
Later, the Ross mother, Greta Schiller, expressed shock at the heated exchanges. "I didn't think that we would have to defend ourselves from these aggressive attacks," says Schiller, whose daughter will be a fifth-grader at Ross. Standing in the hall during another break, she recalls a NEST parent asking if she was from Ross. "The woman starts attacking me. She says, 'You don't have to ruin our school.'"
Some Ross parents are worried about trouble their kids might face when they walk into the NEST building next fallas they expect to do, lawsuit notwithstanding. "It feels like we've invaded their territory," says Perez. Will the hostility translate into retaliation? Will her daughter experience threats? Or attacks? Who will make the peace?
"I'm a little frightened about the whole situation," Perez confides.
Ross parents have kept their kids out of the fight. Last week, their parents' association voted not to let any Ross students speak with the press. Explains Schiller, who attended the meeting, "There is adult business and children's business, and parents feel strongly that you don't send your children on the front lines to do your battles."
The official word from the department of education is that all will be fine. Anger will fade, tensions ease. Ross is optimistic. "I am confident that we will be able to work togetherwe have to, for the children," she writes.
NEST students seem less convinced. One sixth-grader named Max has attended three protests with his father so far, and he plans to keep it up. "I'm going to fight as hard as I can to prevent this from happening," he says. Asked about the possibility that Ross students arrive, Max shrugs his shoulders. It seems like something he doesn't wish to contemplate.
Neither do NEST parents. Not yet, anyway. "People keep asking me 'What is the plan B? What if Ross moves in? How are we going to make it work?' " Buffington says. "But I'm not going to the 'What if' stage yet."