Unrest at Bronx Science

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by alexandra waldhorn and megan izen

playground politics are no longer reserved for students at bronx high school of science.

an estimated 70 teachers and supporters from the prestigious public school rallied outside mayor bloomberg's upper east side home june 10 with a plea for him to intervene in the school's ongoing battle with top administrators.

picket signs summed up their sentiments: "no excuse for teacher abuse" and "teacher turnover hurts students."

the seed for the rally stretches back a few years. in 2008, 20 of the 22 teachers in the math department filed a complaint against assistant principal rosemarie jahoda, alleging repeated harassment and arbitrary decision-making. among the grievances was jahoda's habit of sometimes scrapping the 100-point value system for exams in exchange for an unusual 47- or 71-point scale.

teachers also accused jahoda of singling out and intimidating new math teachers, who were untenured and could be easily removed from the school. according to an arbitrator's official fact-finding report, published april 15, 2010, jahoda called one teacher a "disgusting person" and made seven teachers cry on 12 separate occasions.

jahoda did not return calls for comment.

peter lamphere, the uft's chapter leader at bronx science, coordinated the rally, which was not an official uft event.

"joel klein and the doe would like the public to believe that they only discipline teachers to improve education, but this case really shows that supervisors can abuse their power and use pedagogical excuses to cover harassment," lamphere said.

lamphere has been at the center of the infighting after jahoda gave him an unsatisfactory rating for his teaching in the 2007-08 and 2008-09 school years.

after spending eight days during the course of a year listening to witnesses, examining documents and hearing arguments from both sides, an arbitrator offered a non-binding recommendation that both jahoda and lamphere be relocated to new schools.

"we feel like the arbitrator's recommendation should serve as the basis for negotiations between the doe and the uft, but the doe has chosen to ignore all of the recommendations," lamphere said.

the department of education, however, says the fact-finder's report was flawed on a number levels. an official response from the department's office of labor relations and collective bargaining highlighted, among other problems, the fact that the math department was in need of improvement and had been resistant to change, the fact-finder's reliance on un-sworn written statements in the report, and the failure of the aggrieved teachers to turn over all but one secret recording made during an 18-month period to support their case.

"we disagree with and reject the fact-finder's report," said ann forte, a department spokesperson.

chiara coletti, chief spokesperson at the principals union, the council of school supervisors and administrators, said the school's troubles don't warrant intervention from the city's top offices. coletti said that the arbitrator found character flaws on both sides.

"sometimes a school leader gets ganged up on for being very determined in turning the educational system around," coletti said.

administrator-instructor conflict isn't new at bronx science, and appears to be rooted in a larger schism between teachers and the school's principal, valerie reidy, who was responsible for hiring jahoda in 2007. as early as 2005, reidy was butting heads with teachers over a policy to require "pure discovery" method in science classrooms, which doesn't allow the use of textbooks before class experiments to prepare for the lesson. teachers then felt she was driving away qualified teachers, according to the new york times.

"bronx high teachers are voting with their feet," said former social studies instructor mark sadok, echoing the concerns from 2005 about teachers leaving the school.

sadok's grievance, which is similar to lamphere's, is currently under appeal. sadok was not asked back to teach for fall 2010.

statistics from new york state testing and accountability reporting tool show that the number of teachers at bronx science with less than five years of experience has increased from 20 percent to 27 percent since 2006, and that the same group has had a sharp increase in turnover rates during that time frame. some teachers believe that reidy hires untenured teachers in order to maintain control of the staff since those jobs are less secure.

while the school's u.s. news and world report ranking has dropped from 20th to 58th in the nation since 2006, performance on the regents exams has been largely consistent, with only a slight decrease in scores for mathematics b and english.

still, malcontent among staff continues to grow. according to the department's 2008-2009 learning environment survey, the majority of teachers at bronx science believe that reidy's primary concerns are not in students' best interests, that she manages the school poorly and that they can't trust her word.

"an elite institution cannot maintain its elite status when the majority of its staff does not trust its leader," sadok said.

lamphere said that teachers, albeit frustrated that school politics are interfering with their teaching, are keeping students out of the drama. the parent's association has also not taken a side, but they would like to see the issue resolved, according to lamphere. a representative from the association was not available for further comment.

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