NEST is hardly empty, parents and students protest

By Anindita Dasgupta

On May 24, Wall St. stood divided. From 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., more than 500 parents and children crowded the street facing the Cipriani Club. Parents waved signs and chanted, “Save our NEST!” while making sure their children didn’t run into the street. Children beat pots, blew whistles and shouted at cars passing by to honk in protest. A few ran along the opposite street like mascots at a sports event, eliciting excited screams from their peers. Some still wore their uniforms (collared shirts with the NEST+m logo and crumpled khaki skirts or pants), while others donned brightly colored T-shirts with “Save our NEST” stickers attached all over them. Weary businessmen and -women looked up as two or three excited children at a time raced to hand them fliers regarding their cause.

The protesters hailed from New Explorations Into Science Technologies and Math School, a kindergarten-through-12th-grade school on the Lower East Side. Upset by the Department of Education’s decision to place the new Ross Global Academy Charter School into the NEST+m building on Columbia St. for two years, members of the Parents and Teachers Association, faculty and students rallied outside the Cipriani building where Schools Chancellor Joel Klein was being honored by Graham Windham, a nonprofit organization assisting underserved children.

In an April 10 letter, Garth Harries, D.O.E.’s chief executive officer of the Office of New Schools, explained that NEST’s building is designed to serve almost two times as many students it is currently serving. According to D.O.E., the school should hold 1,407 students, but only 732 students are currently enrolled at the time.

The NEST+m parents believe there are other buildings in which D.O.E. could place the new charter school. In addition, they feel that D.O.E. made an error in calculating the number of students NEST+m would be expecting in the fall. NEST+m is a growth school, where certain grades are added each year. But the NEST+m parents say D.O.E.’s figure doesn’t include the fifth-grade class — another 111 students to be added in the fall, completely filling grades K-12. The number of incoming students from the Ross Global Academy would be 160.

However, D.O.E. spokesperson Kelly Devers explained, “It’s just at a point where they [NEST+m] are the most underutilized school in the district.”

In his letter, Harries also mentions his disappointment in NEST+m parents’ behavior, as his office received letters from angry parents claiming that during a visit from department representatives to assess space, NEST+m administrators and parents wasted class time by moving students from classroom to classroom, making it seem like there were more students than there actually were.

Several NEST+m parents called Harries’s claims “bologna” and said they were there the whole time and didn’t see any such misleading behavior.

With no agreement on the numbers, members of the NEST+m P.T.A. have lawsuits against the New York State Board of Regents, the Department of Education and Ross.

Ross Institute, based in Soho, explained that if the court ruled in favor of the NEST+m parents and overturned the Ross Global Academy charter, the school would cease to exist.

Elias Rodriguez has recently enrolled two of his children in the Ross Global Academy. He’s worried that the court proceedings may delay the opening of the school.

“The fact that we’re going to court is ridiculous!” he said. Rodriguez, who went to school in the Columbia St. building when it was a junior high school, said he believes in “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” J.H.S. 22, a failing school with dwindling enrollment, was closed about five years ago and NEST + M moved in.

The three partners responsible for creating the Ross Global Academy Charter School in New York City are the Board of Regents, D.O.E., New York University and the Ross Institute. In statements, both N.Y.U. and the Ross Institute affirmed that they had no say in site selection of the charter school.

Stuart Fischer, spokesperson for the Ross School, said, “While Ross and N.YU. wanted a location on the Lower East Side, close to their facilities, the decision to site Ross Global Academy, a public charter school, at 111 Columbia St. was made solely by D.O.E. D.O.E only informed us of our location at the end of April.”

D.O.E. spokesperson Devers explained that the number of classrooms to be allocated to the Ross school is still being decided at this point. In his letter, Harries wrote, “The set-aside [of classrooms] will allow NEST+m more than enough space and flexibility to continue delivering the same high-quality education, smaller class size and diverse curriculum that has made it such an attractive and successful option.”

“We are using every inch of the building,” said Gasco. Parents worry about keeping their small class sizes and extra-curricular activities for their children.

Harries dismissed this concern in his letter, stating: “There is no reason why the school can’t continue to operate honors and A.P. classes…. The NEST+m administration is currently working with a school programmer on its schedule and curriculum for next year, and the department has offered several scheduling/programming experts to the school in order to support that design.”

Following their initial concerns over space, members of the P.T.A. contacted individuals from Ross, D.O.E. and N.Y.U. to discuss scheduling logistics. Betsy Combier, a NEST+m parent, tried to contact D.O.E. officials as well as Ross school administrators. After two months of asking questions and getting answers she feels are inadequate, she doesn’t feel D.O.E. and the Ross school are interested in discussing how to deal with the logistical issues that will undoubtedly arise from adding another school to the building.

“I have gotten nobody who wanted to talk; no response at all. Over the last two months, it’s gotten tiring,” Combier said. “We have no other way of looking at it. It looks like a hostile takeover.”

Ross spokesperson Fischer defended their level of communication with NEST+m.

“Ross Global Academy Public Charter School has held numerous public information sessions in the community which have been attended by hundreds of parents, including parents from NEST+m,” the spokesperson said. “These information sessions…were designed to answer every single question that anyone had. We feel we have been very responsive to the community.”

Gasco explained that at each of these information sessions, a member from the NEST+m P.T.A. has approached Ross’s Mark English, who ran the sessions, and offered formal invitations to discuss plans for next year.

“We’ve been inviting them since April to talk,” Gasco said.

Despite these invitations, the Ross Global Academy doesn’t feel like NEST+m is open to discussion.

“Because of the hostility towards Ross and the subsequent litigation, we did not think it would be appropriate or constructive to meet with the leaders and parents at NEST+m and their P.T.A.,” Fischer said. “Once the litigation over the location of Ross Global Academy is resolved, we look forward to meeting with them.”

NEST+m parents want to know how the two schools will split up use of the school’s one gymnasium that is already in use all nine periods of the day by NEST+m students. There is also the question of when and how parents of each school will pick up and drop off their kids without creating traffic jams on Columbia St. Parents are also concerned about how the cafeteria staff will handle two different lunch schedules. NEST+m parents feel that giving up classrooms to Ross will be a large adjustment, but then sharing spaces that are already common to the NEST+m upper, middle and lower schools will be too much of a stretch.

The Ross school will follow the education model developed at the Ross School of East Hampton, a private school founded 15 years ago by Courtney Sale Ross and her late husband, Steven J. Ross, former chairperson and C.E.O. of Time Warner. The model focuses on improving the mind and body throughout the curriculum.

Ross officials explain that there are already 375 applicants vying for 160 seats at the planned new school. About 125 students have been enrolled. However, even though students are admitted through a lottery system, all students accepted to the Ross Academy have gone through the application process. The school will start in the fall with students in grades kindergarten, one, five and six, with plans to eventually grow to include grades K-12.

NEST+m strives to give gifted and talented students a challenging learning environment. The school’s curriculum integrates aspects like Singapore math and single-sex instruction of math and science. School administrators explain that NEST+m trains its students to be strong researchers starting in kindergarten.

Sybil Graziano, a NEST+m parent, said, “Organizing and supervising the logistics to house two schools in one building will certainly take away from the energy needed for teaching…. There are so many possible situations and scenarios that will arise that will detract from learning. Who needs these headaches?”

The issue of space and placing multiple schools in one building is not an unfamiliar concept to the Lower East Side. Last fall, three schools — P.S. 134, P.S. 137 and the Shuang Wen Academy — were involved in a dispute regarding use of two school buildings, a dispute that still has not been fully resolved. Devers explains that since 2003, D.O.E. has created 47 new charter schools, with 22 of them sharing space with other educational programs.

Rodriguez, the Ross parent, believes there may need to be some “mending of fences.”

“It is unfortunate that it had to come to this,” he said. “I think we will have to foster an environment of congeniality.”

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