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If you're a white student and you arrive at the public elementary school building on 95th Street and Third Avenue, you'll probably walk through the front door. If you're a black student, you'll probably come in through the back.
It's a very New York kind of school facility: two completely different elementary schools sharing the same space.
The boxy, utilitarian structure was built in 1959 to house P.S.198, named after Isador and Ida Straus to commemorate the Congressman and Macy's department store owner and his wife, who both died in the 1912 sinking of the Titanic.
Since 1988, the building has shared space with another school, in a tradition that has rapidly increased under the reformist scheme of Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
In this case, it's the Lower Laboratory School for Gifted Education (P.S.77) that has been given space in the old Straus building—including the part that contains the front door.
Lower Lab is mostly composed of white students (69 percent) and Asian children, who are driven in from all over Manhattan.
Straus is zoned, which means it has to serve any child from the local neighborhood. For that reason, it's overwhelmingly Latino (47 percent) and black (24 percent).
Over the main entrance, the old sign for Straus remains, but Straus kids are told to go around to the back of the building.
Even Straus staff members are instructed by the NYPD School Safety Agent at the front door to use the rear entrance.
An African-American attorney, Granville Leo Stevens, who showed up at the front door recently on official Straus business, says he was only "grudgingly" allowed to enter the front door after he complained to the SS agent.
"It's the craziest thing I've ever seen," Stevens says.
The only people welcomed openly to the front entrance of the schoolhouse are very young kids with killer testing skills.
Lower Lab is designated as talented and gifted, and it's open throughout the Department of Education's District 2—which includes all of the Upper East Side and much of Manhattan south of Central Park—but only to youngsters who score high on tests given to them at four years of age.
In return for the high marks, the privileged kids of Lower Lab not only never have to sit in classes with the Straus children, they don't even have to mix with them on the way to school.
By 8 a.m., except for a few stragglers, the local kids walking on their way to Straus—some holding hands with parents—have all trudged up 95th Street, entered a gate, crossed a schoolyard, and disappeared into the back entrance of the building.
And that's when the other kids start showing up. Classes for Lower Lab start later—at 8:30—so at about 8 a.m., the automobiles start to arrive: Black Mercedes sedans, town cars, and taxis pull up to the curb at the front door, depositing white children onto the sidewalk. At one point, on a recent morning, there were so many black SUVs backed up that it looked like a head of state was stopping by before heading to the U.N.
Lower Lab parents often get out of their cars to walk their children the last few feet to the front door. Mom and Dad wear well-tailored jackets and suits. Several children's coats are adorned with lift tags, suggesting a weekend ski trip. And many of the Lower Lab kids arrive with musical instruments slung over their shoulders. (Lower Lab has an instrumental musical education program; Straus does not.)
Inside, the building is not divided neatly in half for the two schools. They share floors, and a Lower Lab classroom might sit right next to a Straus classroom.
There are areas that both schools share. In these spaces—hallways, for example—an emphasis has been placed on harmony: The hallways have been given names like "Respect Avenue," "Understanding Street," and "Unity Avenue."
Except for these nods to cooperation, you see signs of the division between the two schools everywhere. In a hallway, on a recent morning, there was a five-gallon water bottle for soliciting funds for Haiti disaster relief—but only from Straus people. A large bulletin board reads, "We are All Connected," and graphically connects pictures of all the teachers, assistants, and administrators—of just Lower Lab.
On a wall of "Golden Rule Avenue," there's a display of "position papers" written by a class of Straus fifth-graders. The illustrated title pages demonstrate how earnest 10-year-olds can be.
"Eat Healthy! It's good for you."
"The Damaging Effects of Alcohol."
Another, "No Smoking!," features the declaration that smoking "Damages teeth! Damages chin! [Makes a] Hole in throat! [Makes you] Lose fingers!" It's accompanied by matching drawings of finger amputation, face mutilation, and even a tracheotomy—the horrors of each rendered for maximum effect in the hand of a child using Magic Marker.
If only these earnest young moralizers were so passionate about classroom order.
"They are good children, they really are," a fifth-grade Straus teacher says as she fights a continuing battle to keep things under control. "But I have to get them to listen," she adds, her voice rising as she turns back toward her chattering flock, giving them the evil eye.
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