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A Bronx Science Experiment

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That same year, the math department imploded. Twenty of its 22 teachers filed a special complaint through the UFT, accusing Reidy’s new math assistant principal, Rosemarie Jahoda, of harassing and intimidating them. Teachers who were part of the complaint called Jahoda vindictive and said she spoke in “angry and loud tones.” “I think the harassment we received from the assistant principal was a product of the environment created in the school, and that came directly from the principal,” says Peter Lamphere, the school’s UFT delegate at the time, who believes that when Jahoda “was hired she was basically told by the principal that the math department was a renegade department and part of her job was to get us in line.” In one instance many saw as overkill, a longtime teacher named Joan Alexander received the only U rating of her career just before taking retirement. (The school said she took too many absences; she said it was sick leave.) “I feel like I can’t go back to the place that was like my home,” Alexander says. “Many of the other teachers feel this way, too. We used to mentor the young staff. She’s missing out on that now.” By February 2009, six math teachers who had signed the complaint were gone. By the end of the school year, another six had left.

Jahoda says there were legitimate problems in the department, and that some teachers didn’t want to address them. “They were accustomed to a department run by committee, where the figurehead of the department was merely that,” Jahoda tells me. “And I think they expected me to follow suit.” She remembers the first time she gave a math teacher a U rating. “One of the senior members of the department actually sat me down and said, ‘We don’t get unsatisfactories in the math department.’ And I said, ‘Well, are you saying that the math department has no standards?’ ”

In 2010, an arbitrator ruled that both Jahoda and Lamphere should transfer to other schools, but the Department of Education’s labor-relations office rejected the recommendation, backing Reidy. Nearly 70 teachers and supporters rallied outside the mayor’s Upper East Side home to protest. “They’ve pretty much exhausted all their recourses within the system. So they’re taking it to the streets, and they’re free to do so,” Reidy said at the time. By the next school year, she’d hired eight new math teachers.

Geoffrey Nutter, a former English teacher, says Reidy forced him out as well. Nutter is a poet with an impressive résumé, an Academy of American Poets Prize winner and author of three books. His evaluations, he says, felt like hazings. He says he was excoriated for trying to include Dante in the syllabus of a senior English class, and accused of not grading students’ work the way Reidy wanted. “Oh, I should have been an English teacher!” Nutter says Reidy once told him. “Anybody can just go in and have interesting conversations with kids. But they’re not here to do Mr. Nutter’s class. They’re here to take E7 and E3.” Nutter received three U’s, and quit in 2009.

Investing principals with more power is an essential plank of the Bloomberg education-reform platform, but the turmoil at Bronx Science raises questions about that approach. It’s one thing to have authority; it’s another to use it wisely. In Reidy’s case, her detractors say, her rigid teaching approach devalues instructors’ expertise, and her overemphasis on testing takes time away from more meaningful instruction. At the same time, schools, successful and failing ones, can be famously resistant to change. Just as tenure can protect great teachers, it can also promote mediocrity. Before the Bloomberg era, teachers had seen themselves as colleagues of administrators, not employees. As much as anything, the fight at Bronx Science speaks to the shift in that culture.

“This is a principal doing damage to the crown jewel of the public-school system,” says Mark Sadok. “People like Reidy don’t exist in real-world positions of authority, and if they do, it’s because they are in sick institutions.”

“People don’t like to be told they’re not as successful as they think they are,” Reidy says. (She insists Sadok deserved his Unsatisfactory evaluations.) To teachers who won’t follow her methods, “I say we’ll do everything we can to support you. But if you are saying to yourself right now, ‘This is bullshit, I don’t believe in this and I’m not going to even try,’ then let’s not have this argument.” Her voice tightens. “I had that conversation with Mr. Nutter. I had that conversation with Dr. Drake. There are a lot of approaches to teaching, but this is the way we do it here. If you won’t embrace that, there are lots of good schools out there. Go interview there.”


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