Volume 76, Number 7 | July 5 - 11, 2006

NEST charter doesn’t fly; Is principal’s goose cooked?

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+m’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+m 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+m. The department claims 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+m.

Soon to be a junior at NEST+m, Clare Graziano was shocked when she heard that the charter school would not be entering their building.

“When I first found out, I didn’t believe it,” she said. “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!” Graziano said.

Parents of students enrolled in the new Ross Global Academy have been reassured that despite this decision, their school will still open in the fall. 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 Ross 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 through interdisciplinary studies. The school is eventually to include children from Lower Manhattan in kindergarten through 12th grade, but this fall will only be accepting kindergarten and grades one, five and six.

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

NEST+m — also a K-12 growth school — is recognized as a gifted and talented school and has achieved top scores in citywide standardized testing. Students from all over the city travel to attend the selective school, hoping to graduate fully prepared for college.

In its previous plans, D.O.E. said the placement of Ross Global Academy at 111 Columbia St. was only temporary. D.O.E. had planned to let the school “incubate” in the building for two years and then move it to another location where the school could grow to its full size. Now, with the prospect of having its own building, Ross Global Academy may not have to relocate and can grow in one place.

The battle over the spacious Columbia St. building led to lawsuits filed by members of the NEST+m Parent Teacher Association against the New York State Board of Regents, the Department of Education and Ross Global Academy. 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 Ross/NEST+m debate with his comment. NEST+m parents have felt targeted throughout their battle due to the discrepancies between the racial makeups of the two schools. NEST+m’s student body is 55 percent white, while only 6 percent of the incoming group of Ross Global Academy students are white.

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

With one argument cooling off, the fight for fair treatment of Chevere is simmering among parents. Already NEST+m parents have written letters to D.O.E. officials criticizing the decision to remove Chevere. These angry letters warn Klein that he has made a mistake in removing 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,” said parent Dan Gode in a letter to the department. “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.”

Citing Chevere as the reason she even considered sending her daughter to NEST+m, Graziano described Chevere’s closeness and first-name basis with most students, and dedication to help them get into their first-choice colleges.

“You don’t really question her [Chevere], because she brings success,” Graziano said.

Another NEST+m parent, Betsy Combier, agreed that there were additional motives behind extracting Chevere.

“It’s a control move on Joel’s part,” she said. “He doesn’t want people thinking he’s not in control.”

However, in earlier letters addressed to NEST+m parents, Harries had mentioned his disappointment with the school administration’s behavior.

“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 said 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+m 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 worried about discrepancies in enrollment numbers, where NEST+m’s numbers allegedly saw an unexpected, sudden spike.

However, Combier, who also has children attending Stuyvesant High School, holds Livanis in high esteem.

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

Livanis is recognized for her contributions and research in chemistry and physics. At Stuyvesant, she was part of the chemistry and physics departments as well as being student research coordinator.

While Combier is pleased with the choice of principal, she and other NEST+m parents are angered by how Chevere was forced out of the school she had created. Chevere was rumored to be planning to announce in October that she would retire at the end of the school year, but NEST+m parents feel her departure from the school has been tainted.

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

Even if NEST+m parents ultimately don’t start another campaign against D.O.E. to help Chevere keep her job, Combier warns: “If she [Chevere] doesn’t receive everything that she is due for her years of service, then the NEST parents will gather together once again to get her benefits, pensions and anything else.”

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