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On HBO, a 'Class Divide' Between a NYC Private School and a Housing Project

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"Class Divide," a documentary that makes its television debut Monday night on HBO, is a fascinating look at gentrification, race, class, and education in one New York City neighborhood.

The education focus is on Avenues: The World School, a private K-12 school in Manhattan's West Chelsea neighborhood that opened in 2012. 

With a tuition this year of $47,150 (at the upper range of top Manhattan private schools), Avenues provides state-of-the-art technology, uses the Harkness teaching method in its classrooms, and introduces Mandarin Chinese during early learning grades.

"China is becoming the world's superpower," a thoughtful Avenues high schooler named Luc says. "It might be helpful to learn Chinese." 

The school resides in a converted warehouse that is across the street from the Elliott-Chelsea public housing projects, where children living in poverty can only wonder what it's like to attend school there. (As the film documents, there will eventually be some scholarship students from the housing projects.)

"Class Divide," by director Marc Levin, airs Oct 3 at 8 p.m. Eastern time (check local listings) on the pay-cable channel. The film is not primarily about Avenues and its innovative private education and its grandiose world expansion plans. It is about how the school and the adjacent housing project fit into a fast-gentrifying Chelsea.

That neighborhood includes the High Line, the narrow urban "park" built atop a former elevated railroad line that opened its first section in 2009 and has been extended to nearly 1 1/2 miles. The High Line has spurred the development of many expensive residential high-rises, which bring potential students for a school like Avenues but push out low- and middle-class residents.

The High Line is one star of the documentary, as Levin uses it as a visual backdrop to his gentrification story. The other stars are the thoughtful young people from the housing projects and Avenues who grapple with the inequalities that are all around them.

"I've seen a lot of bad stuff in my neighborhood," says Rosa, a resident of the Elliott Houses public housing project. She is a precocious 8 years old, and is the other star of the film.

"Avenues is a school for people with a lot of money, you know that I'm saying?" Rosa says.

Another housing project resident, a young man, says that Avenues' $40,000-plus annual tuition is "a smack in the face" to neighborhood residents. There is some evident resentment at the fact that Avenues students use neighborhood playgrounds but don't interact much with housing project residents.

But the private school is no villain. Christopher Whittle, the education entrepreneur who was a co-founder of Avenues and still its leader when filming was conducted, points out that backers of the school were all for opening its building across the street from public housing.

Whittle, who resigned from Avenues in 2015, is known in education circles both for launching the ad-supported Channel One classroom TV network, and for Edison Schools, the network of privately managed public schools and charter schools. Benno C. Schmidt Jr., whom Whittle had lured from the presidency of Yale University to launch Edison in the 1990s, was another co-founder of Avenues.

With or without Whittle, Avenues has grandiose plans to open campuses overseas, with Beijing and Sao Paulo the first targets.

The Avenues students featured in the documentary, all of high school age, don't come across as snobby or entitled. One student recounts a discomfiting elevator ride with a low-income family that lives in a lower floor of his luxury condo building in which a child expressed wonder that the boy lived on one of the high floors.

(Levin explores this very New York City phenomenon in which developers get tax credits for providing a percentage of their apartments to the poor, including a mention of kerfuffle over the high-rise that drew criticism for having a separate "poor door" for its low-income residents.)

One student from the private school, Yasemin, reaches out to make friends with a housing project resident named Juwan, and Yasemin eventually launches a photography and audio project to link young people from both sides of the street.

Avenues, in the film, offers a tour of the school to children from the projects, including a wide-eyed Rosa, who has aspirations to be a doctor. By last school year, we are told, the school accepted its first scholarship student from the housing projects across the street.

Levin deserves credit for letting us see how the other half lives, no matter which half we're in.

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