Bronx Science teachers' protest taken downtown


By Kate Pastor

Angry Bronx Science teachers took their case to the mayor last week.

A July 8 rally staged at 79th Street and Fifth Avenue, brought more than 50 educators out to protest the Department of Education’s dismissal of a factfinder’s report that sided with 20 math teachers who filed a Special Complaint against the school in May 2008.

An estimated 20 former and current Bronx Science teachers joined with other UFT members to call on the city to protect them against abusive administrators like the ones they said work at Bronx Science. Some unhappy alumni also joined in to air complaints about how the administration was affecting student life.

Helen Kellert, who taught English for 18 years before she retired last June, spoke out against what she called “a dictatorship at Bronx Science.”

“Why did I retire?” she said. “Because of [Principal Valerie] Reidy.”

In May 2008, 20 out of 22 teachers in the school’s math department filed a Special Complaint charging that Assistant Principal Rosemary Jahoda — hired by Principal Valerie Reidy in August 2007 to improve the math department — contributed to a hostile work environment through harassment and intimidation of teachers, particularly untenured ones.

On April 15, a fact-finders report that followed months of arbitration came down on the teachers’ side. It called for the embattled assistant principal as well as the UFT Chapter Chair Peter Lamphere to transfer out of the school. The report also recommended the principal use a facilitator to work with the math department, remove all “letters to the file” issued to the complainants during Ms. Jahoda’s tenure and rescind all actions affecting teachers who transferred out of the school.

But later that month, schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who has the final say in such matters, slapped those recommendations down with his own report. He rejected the finding that Assistant Principal Rosemarie Jahoda “harassed [certain teachers]” and wrote that the arbitrator had relied on a surreptitious recording, while teachers withheld 18 months of other recordings in the investigation — something teachers deny.

Bea Robertson, 43, said she left the school last June after four years in the math department because of the “unpleasant work environment and the harassment.” Though she is no longer there, she came to the rally, she said, because the school’s success is still important to her.

“It affects the students, it affects the faculty. I care about the school and its reputation,” she said.

Some alumni also came to voice concern over the direction the school is headed. One former student, who graduated in 2008, but wanted his name withheld so he could maintain good standing with the principal, said he is proud, yet worried about his alma mater. He said when he was a student there, he was aware of staff problems even though teachers tried to protect them from what was going on. But, he said, students had their own gripes. He bemoaned the growing number of pupils who attend the school and the moving of the Holocaust Museum to “the farthest corner of a basement.”

Vikki Rai, also a 2008 graduate, said he was shocked to see how much had changed when he visited.

“It was like a police state when we visited last year. It was really scary,” he said, noting new rules and cameras in classrooms. “I don’t remember the principal doing anything that made our school better.”

Ms. Reidy made no bones about teachers’ right to protest, but said only a handful of the teachers were actually from Bronx Science.

“Freedom of speech is one of the great things about the United States,” she said.

She defended forcing students to wear ID cards for security, and installing cameras in certain areas of the school to combat vandalism and theft. The Holocaust Museum, she said, was placed in the only available space and is undergoing a $1 million renovation.

“You can’t make all of the people happy all of the time,” she said.

As for the growing number of students coming to the school each year, she said the matter was out of her hands.

“That’s not our call. The way that the seat count is ascertained is by central. We no longer set a cutoff score, we’re asked for seat capacity and then that seat capacity is tweaked by central.”

Still, teachers at last week’s rally who carried signs with slogans such as “No Excuse for Teacher Abuse” and “Teacher Turnover Hurts Students” placed blame for what they say is the school’s turn for the worse, squarely on administrators and the Department of Education.

“The atmosphere at Bronx Science is toxic. Our students do well in spite of the school but they’re not living up to their potential because they’re not allowed to,” Ms. Kellert said.