Inside a Divided Upper East Side Public School

Whites in the front door, blacks in the back door

Throughout Straus, the biggest challenge of having almost 30 kids in a room seems to be controlling the chaos. Over a 40-minute period, a science teacher was observed asking her children more than 30 times to quiet down as she tried to teach a lesson about earthquakes. She scolded them and gave them disapproving looks. The students responded by staring at the floor, looking ashamed (or at least pretending to be).

Seconds later, some students tuned out the earthquake lesson and began a discussion of Nintendo DS.

The modern elementary school classroom doesn't really seem to help the situation. Gone are the rows of individual desks of yesteryear. Today's classrooms look more like the kindergartens of the past, with children sitting on carpeting or together at large tables. It's all very conducive to chatty conversation and not paying attention. The students of Straus spend nearly the entire day in groups on the floor or huddled together at tables with friends.

In this particular class, most of the students are Latino and black, and a few are recent arrivals from China. There's one white kid—and she seems utterly oblivious of her minority status.

The teacher is a stern woman whose commute can last up to two hours each way. Teaching is her second career, and she obviously has a love for it.

In the middle of a lesson, her students' chatter gets too loud. She stops speaking, and turns off the lights. First, she admonishes "those of you who don't want to learn, who are holding others back." Then she calls out another equally disruptive group: "For those of you who think you're all that, may I remind you that you still have something to learn."

In the constant battle, the teacher is always fighting on two fronts: There are those who talk because they're poor students and can't sit still in a classroom, and then there are those who interrupt because they're smart and bored.

One student from the latter group—we'll call her "Doreen"—can be as distracting as one of the troublemakers. Her intelligence shines above her peers. While her classmates are gradually starting to read simple chapter books by authors like Beverly Cleary, she's already plowing through the Twilight trilogy.

But for all her intelligence, Doreen is as likely as anyone else to disrupt the class: She's quick to get bored, and she's not especially modest about being the best. When the teacher calls out "those of you who think you're all that," her tablemate—we'll call her "Gwen"—rolls her eyes and looks at Doreen.

"She's talking about you," says Gwen.

Doreen sighs. "I think I'm all that, because I am."

"Well, why do you have to brag about it?"

"Because I am the best."

"Yeah, but if I got a 100 on a math test and you got a 90, I wouldn't act like all that and make you feel bad."

"But I got the 100, and you got the 90," Doreen sighs. "She never gets a 100," she says in an aside about Gwen.

"So? It doesn't mean you have to brag about it!"

"But I do have to brag. I have a big ego."

"Be quiet, ladies!," the teacher yells, the lesson interrupted yet again.

The teacher desperately wants the Doreens of the class to do well: She is noticeably tougher on the bright kids who she knows have the intelligence but lack the discipline they'll need in the higher grades.

As a Latina in the New York City school system, Doreen's odds of finishing high school are about 50 percent. The chances that Doreen will get into a top public high school are low. Latino students make up almost 40 percent of the school system, but at premier city high schools, they are pretty rare: 8.2 percent at Brooklyn Tech, 7.7 percent at Bronx Science, 2.8 percent at Stuyvesant.

Most of the Latino children who will go to these top schools are already enrolled in talented and gifted schools—not schools like Straus. The odds are greater that a bright girl like Doreen will drop out of high school than make it to college.

Meanwhile, the odds are very different at Lower Lab. At the very least, Lower Lab kids will usually go to the NYC Lab School for Collaborative Studies. Many, whose parents paid hundreds or thousands of dollars in tutoring fees for their kindergarten entrance exam, will benefit from similar training to get them into even more prestigious high schools.

It's hard to get to know Lower Lab too well: Administrators don't make it very easy even for parents of prospective pupils to observe the school. The process of getting one of the coveted 56 seats begins in October each year, a full 11 months before the first day of class.

Even a tour can't be had until you've aced the kindergarten entrance exam. According to Lower Lab's website, only 200 tours are given a year, and "qualifying families will be asked to present a qualifying letter during the tour. We kindly request that families who did not qualify for our Kindergarten or First Grade T[alented] and G[ifted] program refrain from requesting a tour as space is limited." The site refers to pre-K and kindergarten classes that don't require testing as "Non-Talented and Gifted Programs."

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