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New School Takes The High Road


January 8, 2002
Copyright © 2002
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

[PHOTO: Librado Romero/The New York Times]

Angelique Ocasio, 15, a 10th grader at New Explorations Into Science, Technology and Math, reading to kindergartners.

In September, a new public school, New Explorations Into Science, Technology and Math, opened in a once-blighted building at the far eastern end of Houston Street on the Lower East Side.

The 1950's building, a former junior high school stripped of security bars and cleaned of graffiti, now looks as airy, clean and inviting as a homage to Frank Lloyd Wright.

The change is more than symbolic. Despite opposition from the local school board, NEST, as it is called, is bringing hope to a sometimes politicized, perennially lagging school district.

NEST is the first public school in the city to house kindergarten through high school under one roof. Administrators and parents say the mix has calmed older students, while giving the little ones instant academic buddies and social protectors.

Just as striking is its admissions policy. In a district that until now enforced admission by lottery and racial quotas – schools had to strive for no more than 25 percent non- Latino white students even if that meant recruiting out of district – the administrators and teachers at NEST want to reward students who work hard.

Its students are chosen by grades, test scores and, above all, interviews. Its teachers have been hand-picked.

The school came about through the determination of a prickly but experienced principal, Celenia Chévere, who has started five other competitive schools, including a girls' school in East Harlem and the Lower Lab School on the Upper East Side, and a mother, Emily Armstrong, who was angry over the poor quality of schools in her neighborhood.

At a time Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and many business leaders want to put control of the public schools in the hands of the mayor, NEST is a case study on how change can happen, not through central command, but school by school, led by caring people and through attention to detail.

Ms. Chévere, who grew up in East Harlem, the child of poor natives of Puerto Rico, makes no apologies to the school's opponents, many of them Hispanic. "I'm one of them," she said. "But they don't see me as that. They see me as elitist."

In July, looking for a place to house the school, Ms. Chévere toured Junior High School 22, shut down last spring by the state and the Board of Education after years of bad performance. "This will do," she said, secretly shocked by the building's condition.

In a month, she had the bars removed from the picture windows and the brownish plexiglass replaced. The inner courtyard has been spruced up, the interior walls painted stark white and the floors covered with white and gray tiles. Students wear sneakers so they won't scuff the sheen.

The school opened with 160 students in kindergarten, 6th, 7th, 9th and 10th grades, and it will expand upward.

Eleven students, including Ms. Armstrong's daughter, followed Ms. Chévere from the Young Women's Leadership School, where she had been the principal, to NEST, so the 10th grade is all female.

They are like resident big sisters, reading to the little ones on scraps of carpet in the hallway and opening cartons of milk for them at lunch.

For next fall, Ms. Chévere has nearly 400 applicants for 75 spots in 9th grade alone.

The culture is traditional. Students will take Regents exams as early as seventh grade, to leave time for Advanced Placement courses later. There is a preppie dress code, rather than a uniform, and the Lands' End catalog supplies the clothes.

To encourage a sense of community, Ms. Chévere has installed round tables in the lunch room, which she insists on calling the dining hall.

Teachers as well as students have seen the school as an opportunity.

Elizabeth Poreba, the sixth grade humanities teacher, taught for 20 years at Convent of the Sacred Heart, an independent school on the Upper East Side, where Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani sent his daughter.

Ms. Poreba earned $65,000 at her old school, but because the Board of Education gave her credit for only a few years, she took a steep cut in pay to come to NEST. She did it, she said, because she can afford to. She has put her children through college, she lives in the neighborhood, and she wanted to help children who could not afford a private-school education.

She is a stickler for grammar, and her sixth graders are just beginning to read "Beowulf" for their study of Norse invasions.

One of the most popular teachers among the younger students is Norm Silverman, who three sixth graders said was "really cool."

Mr. Silverman turns out to be a middle-aged, bearded teddy bear of a man, not much over five feet tall and, in Ms. Armstrong's less bedazzled but still affectionate view, "nerdy."

But he brings 20 years of experience as a consultant to General Electric to his job as a science teacher. In a kindergarten lesson the other day, he showed 5-year-olds how to hit a tuning fork with a mallet, stick it in a bowl of water and make sound waves so powerful that the water spatters.

"Can you eat with a tuning fork?" one child asked. "I don't think so," Mr. Silverman replied soberly.

Mr. Silverman asked what the tuning fork was doing. "Boinging," Ariana Sierzputowski said. "What's the scientific word for boinging?" Mr. Silverman asked. "Vibrations!" the whole class shouted.

Mr. Silverman praises Ms. Chévere for letting him teach as he sees fit. Ms. Chévere's critics say she takes more interest in beginning schools than in following them through.

Ms. Chévere has a long history of starting new schools, many of them controversial.

She began her career in the 1970's as a second-grade teacher in District 4 (East Harlem), then a hothouse of new ideas that produced many other influential educators, among them Deborah Meier, who won a MacArthur "genius" grant for her work creating the Central Park East schools.

The District 4 superintendent was Anthony Alvarado, who later hired Ms. Chévere to start the Lower Lab School, one of the city's top-scoring elementary schools.

After that, she started the Neighborhood School, Earth School and Children's Workshop, elementary schools in the East Village with selective admissions and strong parent participation.

In 1996, the philanthropist Ann Rubenstein Tisch picked her to be the first principal of the Young Women's Leadership School, the city's only all- girls school.

Although Ms. Chévere has left every school she started, all have continued to prosper without her. But she has a reputation as a difficult partner.

"She is an excellent starter," said Harvey Newman, who worked with her on the girls' school and now advises charter schools from the Center for Educational Innovation- Public Education Association. "But she is a lone ranger."

Ms. Chévere says it is her prickliness that has given her the strength to create unconventional schools in an often hostile environment.

She has found a soul mate in Ms. Armstrong, now the P.T.A. president, who is as likely to be commandeering Ms. Chévere's desk, fielding calls, as the principal herself. Ms. Armstrong's daughter, Brighid Gannon, is in the 10th grade, and her son, Kevin Gannon, in the 6th.

Ms. Chévere and Ms. Armstrong won their latest victory on Dec. 19, when the District 1 school board voted to allow schools to set their own admissions criteria, under pressure from Chancellor Harold O. Levy.

When the decision was announced at a packed, raucous meeting, "Bedlam broke out," Ms. Armstrong said. "It was a little, tiny, little, weensy revolution."

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