Volume 19 • Issue 7 | July 7-13, 2006

Charter school won’t hatch in NEST

By Anindita Dasgupta

After months of explosive arguing, passionate protests, livid letters and emotional court dates, the parents of the New Explorations in Science Technology and Math school have won. Ross Global Academy Charter School will not be coming into NEST’s building on Columbia St.

But, just as their fight to keep the Ross Global Academy out of their building has come to an abrupt end, adamant NEST parents are preparing for another fight — to keep their beloved principal Celenia Chevere in office.

The Department of Education announced in a statement last Friday that Chevere was served with departmental charges of insubordination and misconduct and would be removed from her position as principal of the NEST+m School. D.O.E. announced that Olga Livanis, an assistant principal at Stuyvesant High School, will be the interim acting principal.

D.O.E. released a statement on June 23 announcing that Ross Global Academy would not be sharing space with NEST. The department said it overturned its original, seemingly steadfast, decision to place Ross Global Academy inside the building because it wants to keep stability in the building after the change of the principal at NEST.

“When I first found out, I didn’t believe it,” said Clare Graziano, who will be a junior at NEST. “I thought someone was playing a prank on me.” Graziano and her mother saw a sign reading, “Victory!” in the window of their school, and immediately began calling friends to celebrate. “I literally made 400 phone calls that day.”

Parents of students enrolled in the new Ross Global Academy have been reassured that despite this decision, their school will still open in September. According to Elias Rodriguez, who has enrolled two of his children in Ross Global Academy, Ross parents were invited to a meeting with D.O.E. officials on June 27 to discuss the new situation. At the meeting, Garth Harries, head of the Office of New Schools, promised parents that the Ross Global Academy’s new location would still be in Lower Manhattan and in a building not already containing another school. Rodriguez said he was very happy about this promise.

“We certainly don’t want to go through the experience that we had with NEST again,” he said.

Ross Global Academy will follow the model founded by Courtney Sale Ross, and her late husband, Steven J. Ross, former chairperson and C.E.O. of Time Warner, 15 years ago. The model strives to educate the entire mind and body throughout the curriculum. The school is eventually to go from kindergarten through 12th grade, but this fall will only be accepting students for kindergarten and grades one, five and six, with a preference for Lower Manhattan children.

A Ross spokesperson, said the school had no comment regarding its relocation.

NEST — also a K-12 growth school — has a selective application process and has achieved good scores in standardized testing. It draws students from all over the city including from other Lower Manhattan neighborhoods such as Tribeca and Battery Park City.

In its previous plans, D.O.E. said the placement of Ross Global Academy at 111 Columbia St. would last only two years, when Ross would have to find a new building.

The battle over the spacious Columbia St. building led to lawsuits filed by members of the NEST’s P.T.A. The resulting court dates saw courtrooms packed with tense parents from both schools. Initial hearings led to emotional outbursts from parents, such as when Ross Global Academy lawyer Brooks Burdette characterized the Ross parents in the courtroom as “the more colorful faces.”

Burdette hit on a sensitive aspect of the debate with his comment. NEST parents have felt targeted throughout their battle due to the discrepancies between the racial makeups of the two schools. NEST’s student body is 55 percent white, while only 6 percent of the incoming group of Ross Global Academy students are white.

Some NEST parents felt that this was almost a premeditated campaign against their school on the part of Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. NEST parent Sybil Graziano said that at a Chancellor Parent Advisory Committee meeting earlier in the year, Klein had referred to NEST as a “white school.” Three other parents confirmed Graziano’s account.

Klein’s office did not immediately return calls for comment. A Dept. of Ed spokesperson also declined to comment beyond the statement about the Ross move.

With one argument cooling off, NEST parents have written letters to D.O.E. officials criticizing the decision to remove Chevere.

“When D.O.E. saw imminent defeat in its plan to bring in Ross or it realized that NEST parents will not watch idly by as their school is destroyed, it canceled its plans to bring in Ross and decided to teach NEST parents and kids a lesson by taking their leader away,” parent Dan Gode wrote in a letter. “D.O.E. knows that without Celenia there would have been no NEST and by announcing her dismissal, they have announced their plan to eventually shutter NEST.”

Clare Graziano said she realized she wanted to attend NEST after she met Chevere. Graziano described Chevere’s closeness and first-name basis with most students, and dedication to help them get into their first-choice colleges.

The Dept. of Ed’s Harries had criticized Chevere’s administration in a letter to parents.

“According to first-hand accounts by parents and students, NEST+m administrators and teachers sought to mislead Department of Education visitors on our recent walk-through of the school building,” he wrote in an April 10 letter. “School sources have told us that the school administrators and teachers adjusted student schedules and broke classes into smaller units while the department’s staff visited the building, so that more of the rooms would appear to be full and active when D.O.E. staff was in the building.”

NEST parents refute these accusations, stating that they were in the school during the time of the walk-through and had not observed any such behavior. D.O.E. officials also dispute NEST’s enrollment numbers.

NEST parent Betsy Combier, who also has children attending Stuyvesant High School, does hold Livanis in high esteem.

“She’s an amazing choice,” Combier said. “Now we have one of the most brilliant science educators.”

At Stuyvesant, Livanis was part of the chemistry and physics departments as well as being the student research coordinator.

While Combier is pleased with the choice of principal, she and other NEST parents are angered by how Chevere was forced out of the school she had created.

Rumors were that Chevere was to announce in October that she would be retiring next June.

“What frustrates me is the way Celenia was treated after all of her years of service to New York City children,” Combier said.


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