Reidy herself is a 33-year veteran of Bronx Science. She grew up in the borough, in Morris Park, and earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from the College of Mount St. Vincent, in Riverdale. After attending the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo on a research fellowship, she came back to the Bronx to get her master’s in biology at Fordham. She taught science at Junior High School 117 in the Bronx for four years, then started at Bronx Science as a biology teacher in 1978. In 1997, she became the head of the biology department. Four years later, Stanley Blumenstein, the principal since 1994, retired. The city’s schools chancellor at the time, Harold Levy, a Bronx Science alumnus, initially wanted someone with a national reputation. But when no such candidate emerged, and when acting principal William Stark submitted his resignation and accepted a job in Manhasset, Long Island, the Bronx superintendent of high schools suddenly offered Stark the job, just two hours later. Stark declined, and Reidy, who had made her interest in the position clear, stepped into the void.
In 2001, Reidy became the school’s first female principal. At first, she had the goodwill of many teachers behind her. Her predecessor hailed her in a letter to the Times as “an outstanding teacher, scientist, and visionary, eminently qualified to lead the nation’s foremost science high school.” After helping the school weather September 11, Reidy began to address some of what she saw as the more laid-back parts of the school’s culture. She cracked down on the tradition of seniors’ gently hazing freshmen, and pushed for a stricter dress code (no bare midriffs). Around the same time, she installed additional cameras around the school. But those changes were minor. From the moment she was hired, Reidy says, she was encouraged to think bigger. “Rose DePinto, the superintendent for high schools, came in and said, ‘Things need to change.’ ” Reidy says she was reluctant at first. “Like anyone else who worked at Bronx Science for as long I had, my answer was, ‘What do you mean? We’re perfect. What could possibly need to change?’ ” But DePinto was insistent, Reidy says. “She said, ‘That’s the question I want you to answer. Let me know, but soon.’ ”
Reidy began looking around. “We were doing fine. The kids were smart. No one was really failing,” she tells me. But she says she noticed that Bronx Science students, while clearly every bit as bright as their counterparts at Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech, weren’t performing as well on standardized tests, weren’t winning as many competitions, and weren’t getting accepted to as many selective colleges. As Reidy saw it, Bronx Science wasn’t focusing enough on the things that make students attractive to those colleges. Students were so unconcerned about state Regents exams, for example, that they didn’t bother studying for them. Although they all passed, only about half received “mastery” status of 85 percent or higher. Without top scores on the Regents and other tests, Bronx Science, to Reidy’s eye, was starting to slip a notch. “Students don’t just have to be taught well as gifted learners. They have to have these credentials. That’s the game we’re in. That’s the baseline being set.”
Testing became one of Reidy’s top priorities. She pushed hard for students to be prepped for the Regents, and required every student to take the PSAT freshman year to create a baseline for future performance. She mandated new writing and research-literacy courses for freshmen, and beefed up the guidance department’s staff to help students with the college-admissions process. She pushed for more students to take AP classes, which in the past had been offered only to a select group (practically any Bronx Science student would qualify for an AP class at most schools). She pushed teachers to adopt uniform grading standards. In her 22 years in the biology department, Reidy says, her department valued consistency. “I knew the way you were going to grade your papers because you and I were teaching the same course, and we were going to hold the kids responsible for the same outcomes,” she says.
Reidy’s biggest complaint was with the school’s teaching methods. “Kids at Bronx Science are incredibly lousy writers,” she says. “I knew this because as a biology teacher I was grading two- and three-page lab reports every week and I was the Westinghouse-contest coordinator. I was reading papers that at first I thought were brilliant and esoteric because I couldn’t understand them. But then I realized it was because they were written so badly.” The math department was overly theoretical in her view, focusing too little on real-world applications—and, she notes, producing far fewer Intel competitors than other departments. Many teachers relied on what she calls the “plug-and-play model. Go over the homework, here’s the next formula, plug in the numbers.” If you’re lucky, Reidy says, “in any math class a third of the students see the elegance in math, a third see the logic and structure, and a third just want to get through it. So how are we exciting that bottom third? And how are we taking the middle and moving them to the top, if we can?” In English, teachers were asking kids, “How did the Elephant Man feel?”—not “What language does the author use to show how the Elephant Man feels?” Reidy noticed that many senior teachers were simply lecturing the students—a method that on one hand made the school seem more like a competitive university but on the other failed to impart key analytical skills.