Inside a Divided Upper East Side Public School

Whites in the front door, blacks in the back door

And in case you get any ideas that Mom and Dad might want to decide together on whether or not Lower Lab is the right fit, forget it: "Tours will be available to only one parent or guardian per qualifying family."

(School officials were just as uncooperative with Voice requests for visits, interviews, or even e-mailed responses to questions.)

From a distance, at least, it appears as if, despite being under the same roof as Straus, the children of Lower Lab are living in a completely different world. It's not just that they show up in fancy cars and wear better clothes. Nor is it even that the equipment seems newer in their classrooms, and that the science lab makes Straus's look barren by comparison. (It does.)

But, as one teacher put it, you can see the message taking hold that the children are already receiving about their station in life: "These children are babies—they're four years old—when we start separating them! When you tell them from such a young age, 'You are more than, and you are less than,'—when you tell them 'You are gifted,' and 'You are not,' they get the message."

To hear the staff of Straus tell it, the teachers of Lower Lab—who have exclusive use of the front door—have gotten the message that they're special, too.

"Some of those teachers, they think that because their children are 'gifted,' that makes them better teachers," says one teacher at Straus. "But why? They've already selected out the highest-achieving kids. They're easy to teach. We have to take anyone who walks in. We have to bring kids to the table."

Teachers at Lower Lab also deal with children sitting in groups, who are no doubt just as tempted to slip into conversations. But the teachers in Lower Lab have a major advantage: They have an adult-to-student ratio half that of Straus's.

It's very noticeable when there's an aide or reading specialist present in a Straus class: The teacher has a much easier time keeping kids quiet than when he or she is on their own.

Being alone is never a problem for teachers in Lower Lab. Each has a full-time teaching assistant in the room. That's twice as much help with students who tend to bring fewer problems to the classroom to begin with. Lower Lab teachers don't have to deal so much with children who live in poverty (9 percent of Lower Lab children receive free or reduced lunch, compared to 73 percent of Straus). The rate of special education is lower (13 percent of Lower Lab to 19 percent of Straus). Even the English language isn't an issue for Lower Lab: Straus has 45 English language learners. Lower Lab? Zero.

And yet all Lower Lab classrooms are staffed with a full-time assistant teacher, paid for by a robust and powerful PTA.

The differences between the PTAs of Straus and Lower Lab may be the most stark of all.

The Straus PTA is described as "almost nonexistent," "not much to talk about," and "well-meaning, but not very powerful" by several people. One parent (incorrectly) thought Straus didn't even have a PTA.

The idea of a fundraiser for the Straus PTA is a bake sale (selling Baked Lays and other "healthy" snacks, that is). Meanwhile, Lower Lab's idea of a fundraiser is an auction. In the 2006–2007 school year, the annual auction brought in $166,289. That same year (the last for which public records are available), the Lower Lab PTA took in more than a quarter of a million dollars, and reported $424,868 in total assets.

The organization also encourages each family to donate at least $950 a year to their child's public education via a direct appeal.

It's African-American History Month, and the Straus fifth-graders are marching up "Understanding Street" to the combination library and computer lab.

Both schools maintain their own labs. Straus's isn't bad at all, and seems well-supplied with flat-screen Macs—it's questionable how much the children retain, though, as each class gets only an hour a week of computer time.

Students find a list of famous black Americans on each Mac. The teacher tells them to pick one to write an essay about, with a few caveats: "No athletes, and no entertainers."

"I know!" one child exclaims. "I'm going to do Martin Luther King!"

"And no Martin Luther King," the teacher says.

"Awww," goes the chorus. "But I already know about him!"

"Exactly," she says. "Time to learn about someone new."

"What about Jay-Z?"

"Is he an entertainer?" the teacher asks so sternly that the normally talkative child doesn't respond.

"Mohammed Ali?" another child asks.

"What did he do?" the exasperated teacher asks.

"He was a—boxer, it says."

"Is that a sport?"

"Oh, yeah."

The teacher moves around the room, trying to help the students pick a subject and begin their research. One child is told he can't write about President Obama, because they've already learned too much about him, too. A lazy boy picks bell hooks. He's surprised to discover that she's a woman, let alone a feminist scholar: "I don't care. Her name starts with 'B,' and I don't want to scroll down anymore," he says, looking at the alphabetized list. "The teacher said we can't do anyone cool. This sucks."

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