Inside a Divided Upper East Side Public School

Whites in the front door, blacks in the back door

Reconciling the disparity between what the schools receive is especially hard for the mother of one of the few African-American students who recently graduated from Lower Lab. "For my son and his development, I would have liked to have seen more students who looked like him."

When asked if she felt uncomfortable knowing her son received superior resources to most of the black students in the building, her gratitude outweighed her discomfort: "If I was on the outside, I'd say that that's not fair. But getting to be in the school, with my son there, I was happy to be the beneficiary of those benefits."

She candidly revealed that Lower Lab was a very good bargain for their money: "When you have 28 kids in a class, and you can give $500 or $950 a year, and you can have another teacher in the classroom and cut the ratio in half—I was happy to do it."

One thing that did seem to unsettle her, though, is her feeling that it happened through strong-arming. "The PTA was able to hire more personnel [teaching assistants]. That's circumventing Board of Ed rules. And in the Board of Ed, they are aware of this. But because the people on our PTA are powerful people, they are able to go out there and get these funds, and got what they wanted."

Another black parent put it more bluntly: "They've set up a private school within a public building, where they can raise money for their own kids, and their kids only."

It's the 99th school day of the year, and there is much to celebrate in the fifth-grade class of Isador and Ida Straus.

Not only is it the Friday before winter recess, but the class is having a lunchtime party (technically, a "cultural celebration"). The teacher has set up an elaborate chafing-dish buffet. Together with some of the children's parents, she has prepared a smorgasbord of foods to celebrate a smorgasbord of causes, including birthdays, Valentine's Day, the Chinese New Year, African-American History Month, and the final day of school.

Once the food is set and warming up, she returns to the carpet, where the children have been reading aloud When Marian Sang, a book about Marian Anderson.

"You see, children?" says the teacher, after Anderson has defeated Jim Crow to become an opera singer. "Marian experienced hardships, but she got over them. Every group has gone through hardships, and has gotten over them—black people, Latinos, Jews, Asians."

"Even white people?" one child asks his neighbor.

The food is served, and a table full of boys begins digging in. "This food is off the shizzle!" proclaims a bespectacled African-American boy. He and one of his best friends, a South Asian kid with a winning smile, are actually free to talk without being shushed for a change. They're arguing over who is taller, and whether or not hair should count in height. (The boy with the trim Afro thinks it shouldn't; the boy with the voluminous poof thinks it should.)

At the next table, a group of girls tries to trick adults in the room into revealing their ages by asking them what Chinese sign they were born under, then looking it up on the zodiac.

It's a festive mood, even though all the adults in the building cannot wait for 2:20 to arrive and their vacation to begin. With a snow day earlier in the week, the children have been unable to go out on the playground ever since, and they're wound especially tightly.

Despite the teacher's ebullience about the coming vacation—she is literally dancing at the thought—the hard work and money it has taken to put on this party shows how much she loves these children. She paid for the chafing dishes, and the food she has prepared out of her own pocket. Like all New York City teachers, she works with a budget of $150 a year—about 83 cents a day—to provide for all the supplies she'll need.

Unlike her colleagues at the other school in the building, there will be no reimbursement from the PTA. No auction is going to provide her with extra books, or a music teacher, or an assistant. Anything extra—like the food she cooked, after teaching all day and commuting four hours—is on her dime.

Once all of the children have been fed, there is still plenty of food. The teacher invites lots of other people to come in. Staff members and other teachers come on by. It seems like everyone is passing through.

Everyone, that is, except people from the other school in the same building.

The schools' PTAs exist on different orders of magnitude: Their teachers don't seem to interact at all. But what about the kids of the two schools? How do they interact with each other? Though they enter through separate doors, do they play on the playground? Can the "talented" and "non-talented" get along during recess?

The truth is, it never comes up, because they never, ever play together.

From arriving at different times, to having separate lunch times in the cafeteria, to having different recesses in the yard, the two schools just don't interact. They co-exist, as one parent put it, "like oil and water."

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