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13th October

First Published in The New York Sun, October 13, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

The dustup at the Bronx High School of Science between the principal and the parents of Korean-American students has drawn the attention of Richard Condon, the special investigator for the New York City School District, who is “looking into” the controversy. My suspicion is that he won’t find the kind of crime here that leads to indictments, but rather a pattern of incompetence and insensitivity by school administrators.

Parents of the approximately 300 students of Korean background at the school long wondered why there were no course offerings in the Korean language.There is a full language program in both Chinese and Japanese offered by the school that fulfills high school requirements. The Korean parents wondered why a similar program hadn’t been made available in their language.

When the parents took their concerns to the school’s principal, Valerie Reidy, four years ago, they received the usual bureaucratic double-talk about budget constraints. This is the standard response to ideas in which educrats have no particular interest.

In truth, the money to offer Korean, or any language, already existed in the school budget. As long as there was reasonable expectation that a critical mass of students would enroll, the school could offer as many languages as it wished. The Korean parents’ request was not unreasonable. After all, the school has been able to sustain the Japanese program, although the number of Bronx Science students of Japanese descent is a tenth the size of the school’s Korean contingent.

Nonetheless, the Korean parents took Ms. Reidy’s complaints about the budget seriously and called her bluff. They raised over $200,000 in pledges to fund the program. Ms. Reidy accepted this largesse and authorized the establishment of a single elective course in Korean.The parents believed that this was just the beginning of what would develop into a full language program.

Selected to teach the course was Kyoung-Mi Choi, an accomplished linguist who is the pastor of the Korean United Methodist Church, not far from the school. Ms. Choi was clearly not doing this to line her pockets. She was paid as a substitute teacher, netting just $109 a week for the one period a day she taught the class.

As time dragged on, parents wondered when the program would be expanded. Ms. Choi’s class was fully subscribed, and more students had requested the course offering than could be accommodated. It was time, the parents believed, for the promise of a full Korean language offering to be fulfilled. And, after all, there was plenty of money earmarked for it.

Ms. Reidy was firm in her refusal to expand the program. Even the request for a second section of the elective class was refused.

Things came to a head last month when a delegation of 10 Korean parents met with Ms. Reidy. Although the parents wanted Ms. Choi to be included, the principal refused, blaming the teacher for the parents’ displeasure with the program, angrily telling parents that Ms. Choi was a liar. The meeting ended abruptly after Ms. Reidy stalked out. Ms. Reidy’s superior, Local Instructional Superintendent Elena Papaliberios, later acknowledged that the principal’s remarks about Ms. Choi were “inappropriate.”

Later that day, Ms. Choi was summarily dismissed, instructed to leave the building immediately. Since that day, four teachers have come and gone from the class. On Wednesday, the parents held a press conference in front of the school, joined by a group of students and Ms. Choi. They wanted to know why the Korean community is treated so differently from others at the school. They are also concerned over the issue of all this money.

The affection of the students for Ms. Choi and her concern for them was evident, even touching. She is looked upon as a valued mentor. She did nothing wrong except for questioning Ms. Reidy, and she is not the first teacher who lost her job at Bronx Science under similar circumstances during Ms. Reidy’s tenure.

A guidance counselor, Livia Sklar, found her position eliminated after she criticized Ms. Reidy for increasing the load of the school’s guidance staff. Robert Drake, a chemistry teacher with a doctorate was dismissed after participating in a protest of Ms. Reidy’s insistence at being addressed as “doctor,” when her degree is an honorary one bestowed by her alma mater, the College of Mount Saint Vincent. Staff morale at the school appears to be at an all-time low.

Beyond the personnel problems, there is the issue of the money. Last month Ms. Reidy refused to accept a $35,000 installment of $175,000 pledged by jWin, an electronics firm based in Port Washington, and returned $35,000 that the firm contributed last year. Still another $35,000 remains at the school from jWin, as well as over $20,000 in other contributions that the benefactors insist was earmarked for the language program and Ms. Reidy maintains was simply contributions to the school.

At best, this matter has been mishandled. This much money should not have been accepted by the school unless there was a clear understanding on both sides of how the funds were to be spent.That there is so much misunderstanding and bad blood over a program that started with so much promise reflects badly on the school and the principal. One hopes that the probe by the Special Investigator’s office will demonstrate this and not disclose anything more sinister.

© 2006 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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