A Bronx Science Experiment

Principal Valerie Reidy at Bronx Science last week.Photo: Jake Chessum

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?”

Former Bronx Science teacher Mark Sadok regularly protests outside the school.Photo: Karsten Moran/The Riverdale Press

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.

Reidy observing a class.Photo: Jake Chessum

Reidy felt she was ideally suited to solve these problems. In her own science classes, she had used what teachers called the “guided discovery” method, in which students aren’t lectured at but instead led through a lesson Socratically, so they develop their own understanding of the material. In math, students aren’t drilled but asked how they might try to approach a particular problem—say, figuring out exactly how two lines intersect. “I don’t want to know the answer, I want to know the process. I want to see how you think. You might come up with a convoluted way of doing it, and then I can say you did a great job but here’s a shortcut you may choose to use.”

Reidy lights up when she talks about guided discovery; she believes it links back to the laboratory or “inquiry”-based learning encouraged by Bronx Science’s founders. But the method is highly scripted and can make teachers used to lecturing feel more like robots than educators. “What I find is when you have teachers with a lot of alphabet soup after their name, they take the college approach: ‘I’m going to come in and expose you to my brilliance,’ ” she says. “But real teaching is tight. This is not, ‘We’re going to have a loose conversation about the information, and then you can go home and teach yourself.’ You’re Socrates. You have to steer them to the solution.”

She devised a two-part strategy: Those new teachers who couldn’t or wouldn’t teach her way would not get tenure; the older, set-in-their-ways teachers would retire sooner or later, making room for young ones she could train herself (Reidy generally hires new, unmolded teachers, not experienced teachers who have earned tenure elsewhere). She promoted new assistant principals she felt would embrace her approach and be a model for others. She even handed out copies of her old biology lesson plans and suggested teachers take a pointer or two from them. “I’ve learned this over time, I’m good at this,” Reidy says. “The sequence of the questions has to be well thought out—because they’re building to a conclusion. The wording is important. I’ll often say to teachers, ‘Change this word. You noticed no hands went up? Change this word.’ ”

“There are lots of good schools out there. Go interview there.”

In May 2005, a group of Bronx Science teachers started distributing leaflets outside the school, slamming Reidy’s approach. Chief among her critics were chemistry teacher Robert Drake and ­social-studies teacher Mel Maskin, the union chapter leader. That school year, the United Federation of Teachers filed 25 grievances against Reidy. The majority of the objections involved the guided-discovery method. But there were other criticisms.

At a faculty meeting, Reidy was reported to have explained the school’s SAT-prep courses by saying students who “speak Asian” needed them. And after receiving an honorary doctorate from the College of Mount St. Vincent, she was said to be telling people to call her “doctor” (she later denied that). Drake seized on this and began handing out buttons labeled QUACK. “Somehow I crossed her, though I still do not know how,” Drake later said. “I had 30 years of college experience as a research chemistry professor and several excellent years at Bronx Science before my fall from grace.” The protest caught on with students, and one junior reportedly accused Reidy of trying to get him to say he was coerced by Drake into protesting. Drake left the school that summer, as did a steady stream of teachers, about fifteen each year over the next several years. One of them, Bryan Sans, who left in the middle of the 2006–2007 school year, reportedly accused Reidy in his resignation letter of promoting a “culture of fear.”

A number of tenured teachers began to feel threatened; Reidy wasn’t leaving them alone as her predecessors had. “Teachers who had been perfect and had no problems whatsoever—suddenly everything they did was wrong,” says one social-studies teacher who left last year. “There’s some sort of social aspect missing with her,” says Bill Boera, who retired in 2007 after eleven years in the guidance department. Boera says he came back from a prolonged sick leave to find his office had been turned into a conference room; he also had to file a union grievance just to take Ash Wednesday off. “She doesn’t connect with people well.”

Another round of “quack” protests came in early 2008, after Reidy demanded teachers standardize what they teach among classes and give diagnostic pretests. When Reidy moved to squelch the protests, she only made things worse. Some 200 students held signs reading “We Love Our Teachers” and “I’m a Doctor Too, a Ph.D. in My Rights.” “She went after some of the brightest and the best teachers—people who could actually think,” says Helen Kellert, whose students were upset because she had been criticized by one of Reidy’s assistant principals for showing a video of The Merchant of Venice. “They said in class, ‘We’re not going to take this.’ And I just looked at them and talked about the French Revolution—about how we stand up to certain regimes.” Later, ­Reidy had Kellert investigated by the Department of Education for inciting the students to protest (Reidy says she believes Kellert falsely told her students that she was being fired). “It went nowhere,” Kellert says. She took early retirement a year later. “I started quoting Louis XIV—the style is the person. It was as much substance as style. The petty dictator digs in, learns a few rules, becomes savvy, and manages to slip through.”

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.”

Reidy says selective-college acceptances have gone up during her tenure, although she allows that some of the improvement might be owed to the new common application, which means more kids apply to more schools. In 2011, the senior class of 730 students had 742 acceptances among top-50 colleges, or 1.02 acceptances per student—a substantial increase from the .86 acceptances per student in 2000. She shows me the AP test scores and Regents mastery scores—the benchmarks she’s arguably worked hardest on—and they’re higher too. Last school year, 1,444 students, or practically half the school, took at least one AP class, and the total number of exams taken was 2,952. In 2007, 905 students took 1,824 AP tests. The percentage of tests earning a score of three or higher drifted upward in those years, from 89.4 percent in 2007 to 93.3 percent in 2011.

But whatever Reidy’s accomplishments may be, her critics say they come at too high a cost. They point to a recent Department of Education survey showing that 63 percent of Bronx Science’s teachers don’t trust the principal, and note that several of the many teachers who have left have taken jobs at Stuyvesant. They cite the latest U.S. News and World Report ranking of the nation’s top high schools, in which Bronx Science rated 58th. In 2007, it ranked 20th. In the magazine’s ranking of math-and-science high schools, Bronx Science actually lags one place behind Brooklyn Tech. In the past twelve years, Bronx Science has had 43 fewer Intel semifinalists and ten fewer finalists than Stuyvesant.

In a sense, Reidy has won the fight, at least for now. She says more than 400 people applied for the open social-studies spots. Many of her most vocal opponents are gone, and her assistant principals hail her as the first Bronx Science principal to dare to tackle long-festering problems. The parent association is in her corner. “Why do I think she takes so much heat? Because she’s willing to be a tough leader,” parent-association president Anne Reingold says. Joel Klein backed Reidy in the 2008 dispute with the math department, and although it’s possible that current chancellor Dennis Walcott might have a different view of her, the Department of Education rarely removes a school principal unless the school is failing. “I think, quite frankly, that Klein and Bloomberg really adopted what we’ve known for a long time at Bronx Science, which is teaching is not telling,” Reidy says. “Some teachers say working individually with so many kids is too much work. But that’s the knock I take. I have to hold people to a different standard here.”

She sighs. “I guess the lesson I learned is in a school like this, change takes a very long time, and you have to balance your patience with the benefit to kids,” she says. “Sometimes you can’t wait. Sometimes you have to say, ‘No, this has to happen now, because the kids need it now.’ I guess if I were really smart and had a self-preservation instinct, I would have done nothing.”

She nods, and her assistant principals sitting around the table nod with her.

“It would have been easier,” she says, “to do nothing.”

A Bronx Science Experiment