New Explorations into Science, Technology and Math
MANHATTAN NY 10002 Map
New Explorations into Science, Technology and Math
One of five citywide gifted programs and the only one to serve children in grades K-12, New Explorations into Science, Technology & Math (NEST) has a significantly faster-paced curriculum than most other New York City public schools. Children have up to an hour a night of homework beginning in kindergarten; by high school, students may be expected to do as much as four hours a night.
All elementary school students study Mandarin once a week. Middle school students take Regents-level courses more typically offered in high school, including algebra, geometry, Earth Science, and Living Environment. In high school, students may take two years of college-level calculus, electives like economics, astronomy, music theory and ballroom dancing; and foreign languages including Latin, Russian, German, Mandarin, French and Spanish. Principal Olga Livanis says the accelerated pace of instruction is necessary for the United States to maintain its position in the global economy
“The competition is so fierce,” said Livanis, who has two doctorates, one in chemistry and one in educational administration. “Look what China is doing! Look what India is doing!”
Housed in a sunny two-story building with wide halls and classrooms arranged around a central courtyard, NEST has increased its enrollment from about 1,000 to more than 1,500 in the past five years. Some students enter in kindergarten; others enter in sixth grade, still others in ninth grade. In recent years NEST has had a significant number of openings for ninth graders as many eighth graders leave NEST for specialized high schools.
Livanis, who came to NEST in 2006 after a decade at Stuyvesant High School, has more than doubled the high school’s enrollment (to 550 students) and significantly expanded the number of Advanced Placement courses offered. She has recruited teachers from specialized high schools, including Stuyvesant, Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Latin and created a curriculum that includes a good balance of math, science, the humanities and the arts. The elementary school has mostly white children from middle class or prosperous families; the high school has a mix of black, white, Latino and Asian children, about half of whom are eligible for free lunch.
NEST was once known as a sink-or-swim school where children who couldn’t keep up with the pace were “counseled out”—asked to leave. Although NEST still loses some students, Livanis says she is committed to creating a place in which all children, once admitted, are given whatever help they need to succeed. Diagnosed with dyslexia as a college student herself, Livanis says she understands that students may have uneven abilities, and that even gifted students can face significant academic challenges. The mother of a high-achieving child with a learning disability told us she was pleasantly surprised by the level of support NEST gave her son. Other parents said teachers are available to provide extra help after school and during lunch. “My son has an issue with handwriting,” a mother said. “When I contacted them about that, they responded right away and assigned him to an occupational therapist.”
Each class in kindergarten through second grade has a play area with lots of blocks. The rooms are bright and colorful. Lessons are woven around interdisciplinary themes such as transportation (the different types, how fast or slow they move) and Central Park (how to read maps, or build bridges, or what kind of wildlife lives there). The elementary school (also called the Lower School) has weekly "enrichment clusters" in which children from different classes work together on projects such as cooking, puppetry or street hockey.
NEST uses the Singapore math curriculum, which emphasizes quick recall of arithmetic facts more than the TERC or Everyday Math programs used in most New York City schools, which emphasizes conceptual understanding. For parents who are frustrated by the progressive math programs in use in most of the city, the Singapore math is one of NEST's great strengths.
“Overall, I feel like we’ve hit the lottery,” said a mother who is active in the PTA. “Our daughter has been challenged but not stressed out.”
In the middle school, the amount of homework increases from about an hour a night to two hours a night or more, parents told us. Girls and boys are separated for math and science; Livanis said girls, in particular, are more likely to speak in class if they are separated from boys. One mother praised teachers for their willingness to coach sports. "They are committed to the whole picture and not just teaching classes and dashing out at the end of the day," she said. Children in grades three through eight wear a dress code: khaki or navy blue trousers or skirts, and polo shirts of various colors emblazoned with a NEST+m logo. Both elementary and middle school children play outside in the pleasant courtyard after lunch.
About half of the eighth graders leave NEST for larger or more established high schools; therefore, a significant number of seats are available for new ninth graders. The high school students who were at NEST for middle school may be as many as two years ahead of the newcomers in science and math, but teachers accommodate students at all levels. And, while Livanis said she expects student to do up to four hours of homework a night, we spoke to parents who said two hours was more typical.
Many classes have desks in rows, and there are more classes where the teacher does most of the talking than there are classes with lively discussions. One parent said the school could do a better job of teaching children to do research projects. At the same time, we saw engaging classes and interesting student work. A Spanish class constructed “dreamhouses,” which they then had to “sell” to the class, in Spanish, as if they were real estate agents. Students in an economics class wrote business plans for their dream enterprises – including a bakery and a restaurant. Students in a chemistry class created molecules with plastic beads. The tone of the school is relaxed. On our visit, we saw kids sit in the hall on the linoleum floor in front of their lockers, chatting and eating snacks. “They’re children,” Livanis said. “I want them to feel at home.”
NEST has a full-time college counselor. Students have been admitted to top colleges such as MIT, Wesleyan, Swarthmore, Yale, Columbia, Brown and Cooper Union, among others. A handful of kids go on to community colleges.
On the corner of Houston Street and Avenue D on the Lower East Side, NEST is far from the nearest subway. Because it serves children from all five boroughs, it’s hard for small children to play at one another’s homes after school. “The hardest thing for me, the school is so geographically isolated,” said a parent. “It’s hard to develop a sense of community at the school. When do you see other parents? There aren’t too many volunteer opportunities within the school.” But overall, parents are happy with NEST.
“We love NEST and it has only gotten better since her freshman year,” said the mother of a senior. “She wishes that she could start again.”
Special education: About 25 students receive special education services. Occupational therapy and speech therapy are available. Only eight students are English Language Learners. There are two ESL teachers on staff who teach these children an extra class every day.
Admissions: Children in K-2 are admitted according to their scores on two tests, the Otis-Lennon School Abilities Test (OLSAT) and the Bracken School Readiness Assessment. Students must score in the 99th percentile on the OLSAT to be eligible for kindergarten. (Siblings who score in the 97th percentile may be considered) For admission to the sixth grade, students must score in the 95th percentile on the OLSAT; the school also considers children's fourth grade report cards, standardized test scores and attendance records. For high school, students must take the school's own entrance exam. Current elementary students are guaranteed admission into middle school; current middle school students are guaranteed admission into high school. The school website has an online sign-up form for testing and details about open houses. Free yellow school bus service is provided for children in grades K-6 living in Manhattan, within a 5.5-mile drive of the school. Parents in other boroughs and other parts of Manhattan may pay $3,500 for private bus service. (Jill Grossman and Clara Hemphill, November 2010)