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A Bronx Science Experiment

When principal Valerie Reidy turned the city’s legendary high school into a laboratory, her reforms nearly blew the place up.

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Principal Valerie Reidy at Bronx Science last week.  

There was a time when working at the Bronx High School of Science seemed like the pinnacle of a teaching career in the New York public schools. Along with Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech, Bronx Science is one of the city’s most storied high schools and among its most celebrated public institutions of any kind—part of a select fraternity that promises a free education of the highest quality to anyone with the intelligence to qualify. Together, the three schools reflect some of the city’s most prized values: achievement, brains, democracy. Founded in 1938, Bronx Science counts E. L. Doctorow and Stokely Carmichael among its alumni, as well as seven Nobel laureates and six Pulitzer Prize winners. It has spawned 135 Intel science-competition finalists—more than any other high school in America. Virtually every senior last year gained acceptance to one of the country’s top colleges. The faculty has long been known as among the best, most beloved anywhere. Teachers have traditionally held on to their jobs for decades; some have come to teach the children of their former students.

This spring and summer, however, more than a third of the school’s social-studies department—eight of the twenty teachers—announced they wouldn’t be returning for the 2011 school year. Their departure came after similar exoduses in other departments. In 2009, it was math; before that, English. In 2010, nearly a quarter of the teachers at Bronx Science had less than three years of experience; the corresponding numbers at Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech were 6 percent and 1 percent, respectively. The reason for the seismic upheaval, virtually everyone agrees, is Valerie Reidy.

In her ten years as principal, Reidy’s critics say, she has driven out precisely the kind of teachers who make Bronx Science special. They argue that her pedagogical approach—the sort of data-driven, systematized method the Bloomberg-era Department of Education has mandated elsewhere—might be appropriate for schools that are failing. But for Bronx Science? Teachers who don’t hew to Reidy’s methods, no matter how experienced or highly regarded, have come to be seen as a problem, the principal’s detractors say. “You were questioned on everything,” says Helen Kellert, an English teacher who took early retirement in 2009. And several younger, untenured teachers who have strayed from the dogma have been given unsatisfactory ratings—­often a career killer in the city schools and a historically rare event at Bronx Science.

Student groups, meanwhile, have demonstrated against Reidy. Alumni have started a private Facebook group, 1,600 members strong, to commiserate about the fading glory of the school and plot her ouster. One former teacher, Mark Sadok, who worked on Wall Street for more than 30 years before changing careers, has started a scholarship fund for the school that will be doled out only when Reidy leaves. Sadok taught social studies, but left in 2010 after Reidy gave him bad evaluations, which he disputed. He now pickets the school several times a month, carrying a sign that reads ABUSIVE ADMIN = DECLINING SCHOOL. “I have the time and the resources,” he tells me. “Teachers were seeing therapists because of her.”

Reidy, for her part, makes no apologies for the way she runs the school. When she arrived, in her view, the teaching methods were haphazard and ineffective, many of the teachers were self-satisfied and sclerotic, and students weren’t being challenged the way children of their ability ought to be. Standardized-test scores and other measures of achievement weren’t high enough for a school of this stature. If the downward trajectory weren’t reversed, Reidy believed, Bronx Science would risk losing its vaunted status. And so she began to undertake the most ambitious overhaul of the school in its 73-year history. If people are unhappy, she believes, that’s because change is inevitably upsetting. She seems to welcome the fight. When I contact her asking to visit, she replies right away, asking me to pick a day. “Let me know,” she says. “Nothing to hide here.”

On a bright Wednesday morning in November, we meet. Reidy, wearing a bright-azure suit, is sitting at a glass-topped table in a large conference room next to her office. She is flanked by two of her assistant principals, Phoebe Cooper and Stephen Kalin. Before I take a seat, Reidy hands me a sheet of paper. Her Bronx-inflected voice is clear and clipped, a teacher’s voice—every word weighted for impact. “I don’t know if you read this article or not,” she says. The story in question is from the Daily News. The headline reads, “Bronx Science Faces Teacher Exodus.” Reidy waits a second for me to get the joke, but then can’t wait any longer. “I wasn’t principal then!” she says, and lets out a hearty laugh. The story is dated February 20, 2001, five months before Reidy got the job. She grins. “You guys steal from each other, or what?”


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