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About a year and a half ago an editor at Maclean’s reached out to ask if I would be willing to write a “student insider” type thing about my experience at McGill. In light of my graduation this week (as well as that of most of my friends), and the fact that this piece does not seem to appear online anywhere, here it is. The following was published in March of 2014, but as I understand it was rerun in the 2015 guide as well:

MAIN REPORT

McGill University’s international reputation and enviable location make it one of the world’s most sought-after schools, which is true for Americans like myself too. One of the things that struck me about McGill on my first visit was how it maintains a large, distinct campus in the heart of one of Canada’s largest cities.

In the past three years of study, the thing that stands out the most about McGill is that there is no real unifying culture or ethos to the place. Students—especially after first year, when those who lived in residence generally find apartments in the city—tend to find their own cliques very quickly, and there are few activities that bring them together. Student politics can get fractious, as they do at many universities.
McGill is infamous for its labyrinthine, unforgiving bureaucracy and many students have at least one anecdote about an administrative runaround in response to a simple inquiry or request for service. Even though floor fellows in residences help first-years, and there are student counseling and mental health services, if you are looking for a tight-knit community, or some strong direction and guidance, look elsewhere. That said, McGill does have much to offer in academics and extracurriculars—you just have to seek it out.

EXTRAS
Many groups are overseen by the student union, from the McGill Debating Union to Model UN, the culinary society, and clubs representing each of the major federal parties. The campus boasts an archeological museum and research centre, the Redpath Museum. Gert’s (short for Gertrude’s), the campus pub, is a popular student hangout in the basement of the University Centre.

CITY VIBE
Though  Montreal is North America’s largest francophone city, it’s hard to learn French without a concerted effort due to the relative ease of finding services in English downtown and in clubs and pubs in the Plateau and St. Laurent neighbourhoods, for example. The city’s core is vibrant, but rather compact Old Montreal, with its rustic charm, is a downhill walk from campus. On the subject of hills, be prepared for lots of climbing; the main campus is at the foot of Mont Royal, the mountain for which the city is named. The park itself, designed by Fredrick Law Olmstead (of Central Park fame) is also worth a visit, and is a popular jogging location.

Abraham Moussako, U2 (third year), 20, Political Science

“McGill- University Insider.” In Maclean’s 2014 Canadian Universities Guidebook, edited by Kim Honey, by Abraham Moussako, 175. Toronto, ON: Rogers Publishing Limited, 2014.

For those interested, here’s a link to how it appeared in the guide (2nd page)

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Here are some disclaimers, for your reading pleasure:

The following is a work of fiction, mostly in the sense that it isn’t a work of fact, journalistic or otherwise.  Any resemblance to real events or persons is entirely coincidental (seriously). This is the third of a multi-part narrative that I could, but probably won’t, finish. (Parts One and Two)

5:10

The phone buzzed again, this time to inform the group that the parents were gone. Well isn’t that nice. The five got up off the benches and walked down to the place, which was on 71st street not too far from Columbus Avenue. After a short walk, they climbed up the small stoop into the vestibule of the brownstone apartment (this is the Upper West Side, after all), and buzzed the apartment. It should here be noted that the area already had the overpowering stench of one particularly popular, generally inhaled, controlled substance.

“Who the fuck is it?”

[door rudely buzzes unlocked]

The five went up the winding set of stairs—the apartment took up the whole fifth floor of the building. At the top of the stairs, an old friend greeted them with a cross between a welcoming smile and a sarcastic smirk.

Meet Ben Gutnick. The son of two mysteriously well-paid city bureaucrats (don’t ask), Ben was another alumnus of the same middle school of James, Steve and Alex. He wore a smile of easy cynicism, and had a sense of humor from the same place. His grades were crap, and he was into drugs—stuff even bored, semi-affluent white teenagers would be skittish about experimenting with. He also had one mysterious, monthlong disappearance from the city back in January—some sort of boot-camp drug rehab retreat in the deserts of Nevada, went the whispers. For his part, Ben consistently refuses to comment on the situation, only saying that he had to “sort out some business” that month.

“So yeah, I guess we’re going to have this thing start at 8? It’s not like people have better things to do around now,” Ben argued,  “and no one’s going to pregame something like this.”

“I’m down with that”

“yeah, word”

“So whose buying?” asked James.

Steve interrupted: “Well, obviously me, but the fuck if I’m paying for all that shit. Six way split.”

Richard groaned inwardly. He was a generally cheap person and didn’t have much money to throw around, but with five others chipping in, even a large supply shouldn’t cost too much.

“What are we going to do,” Alex asked, “about other…stuff?”

“People can bring whatever they want, but if shit goes down, I knew nothing,” Ben responded. Famous last words, one might say.

“Maybe we should get dinner or something?”

“Nice try, but you’re helping me clean this place first,” Ben said.

And so they did, shifting around assorted detritus and under-read copies of The Economist and The New Yorker. After all, this is a brownstone on the Upper West Side. Gotta look—and at least pretend to read—the part.

6:30

The house cleaned to some reasonable standard, the group made their way to 70th and Amsterdam, the southwest corner. The name of the place does not matter for our purposes, except that it sells, well, you know.

“So what, exactly, do we actually want?” Asked Steve

“well, beer is a bit of a necessity—do they even sell that here?”

“vodka”

“wine?”

“oh, would you listen to the classy motherfucker, amirite?” said one, to mild laughter.

“alright, got it.” Said Steve.

The other kids moved out of the view of the windows, and waited.

6:45

“Alright, they had most of the stuff. I’ll go to the drugstore to finish off the selection, but let’s put this stuff inside for now. Also, of course you all owe me,” Steve said, exiting the store with several bags.

“How about we get something to eat? That pizza wasn’t the most filling, in hindsight,” James pointed out.

There was agreement.

7:00

The big problem with writing a story about even interesting people—let alone this band of fairly uninteresting misfits—is that there are boring parts, lots of boring parts. This is one of them, so we’ll be brief here. They went to a nearby fast-food chain location. They ate. They left. There you are.

7:20

Wait a second; some of them are getting soda refills. Don’t you love those places that give you free refills?

7:25

Standing outside the location, James posed the obvious question;

“How do we get people to come to this thing?”

“I believe it’s a thing called texting,” Alex said sarcastically. “Maybe you could learn about it. Again, like Ben said,” he continued, “nobody has anything to do this time of the year. They’ll be people.”

James started going through his contacts, with a special emphasis on the women, and the group walked back to Ben’s house.

On the way there, they passed a newsstand. On the cover of that day’s Post was one of their often-lurid headlines:

“BUM COP COPS YOUNG BUCK”

The line was next to a grainy picture that looked like a screengrab from a surveillance camera. Had the kids stopped to read the story, they would have learned that an officer in the Bronx was caught on camera punching a kid who had just been caught trying to swipe a bag of chips from a bodega down the street, in the Tremont section.

That’s not the only thing they would have learned from the newsstand; there was an article in that week’s Time magazine on college admissions (not that they needed the information), and a certain magazine for women was running its usual selection of sex tips (not that they would have been subjected to such recommendations), and a personal finance magazine had some bad investment advice from an already rich businessman (not that they had the money to lose on the markets). It’s funny what’s in a newsstand, or that there still are newsstands…

10-22-09 Photgraphy project 057

The following is a work of fiction, mostly in the sense that it isn’t a work of fact, journalistic or otherwise.  Any resemblance to real events or persons is entirely coincidental. This is the second of a multi-part narrative (Part One).

4:35

In case you’re wondering, the panhandler was actually slightly entertaining, enough so that even someone disinclined towards generosity might have dug a quarter out of their wallet corner. The train pulls out of 137th street, and rolls onto a viaduct, again bathed in the spring afternoon light. Almost instantly, one of the phones buzzes with a text. There apparently is a “free” tonight, which is great, fantastic, good shit, and also opens up another problem.

Procurement, if you will.

[exposition/background]

Actually, let’s back that up, for two reasons. First of all, someone should have bothered to introduce these kids, and perhaps tell you how many of them they are. Sorry. Anyway, this group of five high schoolers–three more so than the other two–has been through a fair bit together. Not in the sappy, characters-in-a-long-running-family-sitcom-sense, but more in the sense that they’ve had to endure the company of each other for far too long.

The kind-of ringleader of the group was a character named James Cohen, who was, as per the classic, well-worn underachiever mold, clever but distinctly lazy. As it stood on this mid spring day, he was on the wait-list for Columbia University. Not to spoil this story, but they won’t accept him. He knows it, they know it, and his guidance counselor sure as hell knows it, but thanks to his triple legacy, the admissions committee up at 116th will go through the motions of reshuffling his application and sending him another letter in a month or so. Of all the kids in the group, James was the one with the closest to a decent social life outside of hanging out with these other four misfits (read: losers), and he of course was filled with the most grandiose visions of college parties, women, and supposedly, much easier course work. Discounting the Columbia string-along, James was probably going to stay in-state for college, either at one of the more respectable New York state schools or some small liberal arts school his parents would shell out for to paper over the vague embarrassment of their well-tutored child not getting into a “prestigious” university.

James’ best friend in this group, and the only one of them he would trust with information of even mild confidentiality, was a kid named Steve Ronson. The two had gone to middle school on the Upper West Side together. He too was an academic underachiever, at least relative to his parents’ expectations, but he also worked much harder than he generally let on, and is headed to Chicago for school in the fall. He could probably use the distance from New York. Steve was once a fairly respected kid in middle school, but a dreadful faux-pas in freshman year–the specifics of which are not relevant to where he and his friends stand in early April, 2011–consigned him to his now mediocre social life. People far removed from his social circle still occasionally reference his name. Negatively. Still, he’s a good, kind kid, and most importantly for the afternoon’s purposes, has a fake. It was Steve’s cards and bookkeeping that kept that game back at the pizzeria going.

Alex Williams rounded out the three closer-knit kids in the group. He also went to the same Upper West Side middle school as James and Steve, and his continued association with the two was basically the residue of those initial three years together (Alex, unlike the other two, had went to parochial school before 6th grade). The three got along well enough, but over the past year Steve and James had started behaving more as a pair, with Alex stuck as sort of a third wheel. Alex probably cemented this frost by subtly trying to cock-block James at a somewhat grimy party a few months ago. Subtle enough for plausible deniability, but James can truly hold a grudge at times.

The other two kids on the train that day, the two not as “in the loop” (presuming one even wants in on this ‘loop’), were Lewis Hernandez and Richard Yee. They were the only non-white kids of that five. Those two facts aren’t related, unless you want them to be. Richard was the one who didn’t have money, or the inclination, to join the poker game earlier. Their slight isolation from the other three was mostly a function of not having gone to the same middle school as the other three. Anyway, Lewis and Richard were both on the school newspaper, which was a truly depressing experience, least of all because no one else gave a shit about them being on the newspaper. The two often played ball with James, Steve and Alex on Friday afternoons. Both lived in Queens–Richard in Flushing and Lewis in Astoria–but probably were going to crash in “the city” if the evening got too interesting.

4:50

The five kids stand outside of the newer head-house at the 72nd street station, having just got off the train. James asks Alex, who got the original text about the parent-free house,

“Is this going to be just a free or an actual party?”

Before the answer, a note about terminology here. A “free” simply means that the parents are away. Typically this lends itself to a small, usually exclusively male night where the guys sit around and have Meaningful Conversations, play video games, and compare notes on attractive women in their classes they couldn’t get with. Beers are typically invovled. A “party” typically features the parent free house, but more people, more interesting diversions, and more importantly, a decent number of girls (or should we say women?).

“Not sure. Keep in mind this thing wasn’t even supposed to happen just a half hour ago,” Alex responded. “At any rate, there is drink to be acquired.”

But first, they were going to go to the house in question, just as soon as the kid’s parents left for their upstate country house. That supposedly was going to happen soon, as signaled by a text he would send 10 minutes after they drove away. They sat on the benches in the not-quite-a-park next to the station and waited.

The story continues: Part 3

131st st (1) to the north

The following is a work of fiction, mostly in the sense that it isn’t a work of fact, journalistic or otherwise. It unfolds in multiple parts (Part 2)

3:30

The pizzeria isn’t much. Actually, it’s just a storefront with a few tables and not-too-comfortable seats inside. Every few minutes, there is the faint rumble of a nearby elevated subway line. The pizza itself isn’t great, but good enough for a midafternoon snack. This could be anywhere in New York’s outer boroughs, but in this case it’s the Bronx, close to the northern stub of the 1 train.

All the nearby schools have let out, and the owner steels himself for the onslaught. He appreciates the brisk business the afterschool hours bring, especially on the Fridays, but hates the highschoolers themselves. To him, they’re a hormonal horde of loud, boisterous, and occasionally aggressive nuisance. The telltale voices of a group of students approaches, and the kids walk in. The owner relaxes a bit. These kids don’t look like troublemakers, he thinks to himself. If asked to actually defend such a sentiment, the owner would probably back away from the statement, but anyone whose lived long enough in a major American city would probably “get” what he meant.

The kids approach the counter and order. Most ask for slices, two deicide on the spot to split a calzone. After ordering, they pull two of the small tables together and array the chairs. While waiting for the food, one pulls out a deck of cards, while another pulls out and opens a folder, grabbing a well-worn sheet with a bunch of names and numbers. Poker has been the rage for the past few months among the school’s upperclassmen, and this group of seniors is no exception.
One of the kids, too cheap (and too poor in pocket money anyway) to gamble, instead takes out his iPod and starts playing one of the game apps. Conversation swirls around him.

“You guys doing anything this weekend?”

“meh, not really”

“I hear someone has a free house, definitely tomorrow, and maybe tonight”

“where are the parents going?”

“country house upstate, I hear.”

A few minutes pass, and the owner shouts over the counter. The food’s ready. The kids get up to pay and get it; some drop a few extra coins and reach into the cooler for a soda. They sit down again.
The mid-spring air is warm, and pregnant with the usual anticipation of the approaching end of school. For these kids, who can finally envision the next stage of life with slightly less guessing, the approaching end has slightly more meaning. To them, it’s the end of all This Bullshit, a catch-all phrase for the onslaught of tests, college applications, and essay-writing they endured in the first half of the year. The arbitrary and punitive management from their school’s administration didn’t help their view towards the past few years.

After a half hour or so, the pizza long eaten, the kids finally call an end to the poker game and head towards Broadway, and the 1 train. They start up the staircase when a familiar rumble is heard.

“Train!”

The kids hurry up the stairs, making it to the turnstiles as the train pulls into the station. One springs ahead, making it inside first and putting his hands on the side of the door. The conductor, rolling his eyes, closes the doors on the back half of the train, but the rest of the kids make it to the platform and on to the front half of the train before the conductor can close those doors. The train leaves the station

4:10

It’s just before rush hour, but on this Manhattan-bound train, the kids find a nearly empty car after walking forward a bit. They, again, sit. Under normal circumstances this would mark a restart to the poker game, but the owner of the deck of cards got his pocket picked back at the pizzeria, so he conveniently forgets this routine. Instead, he brings up what qualifies as important conversation to a group of boys in late adolescence.

“yo, you never actually told us if you got with that girl last weekend. Did it or did it not happen?”

What else did you expect? Especially among this group of relatively undersexed adolescents, there is one sure-fire way to liven up an otherwise listless conversation, and that is talk of, well, you know.

“Two-thirty-first!”

The others never get to hear the answer to this pressing question, as the doors open at the next stop. In sweeps a panhandler, one of the many minor annoyances of the subway.

The story continues: Part 2

Box art for “Cities in Motion”

Is this game of transit management worth the fare?

The list of things that have been turned into video games is pretty long. Amusement park management was pretty early on this list, followed by general business simulation and its associated trillions of sub-niches, from airport management to oil company management and even running a zoo. However, one of the main streams of this “business simulation” genre has been the transportation management simulator.

One of the latest entries in this genre has been the Paradox Interactive game Cities in Motion. The game, which is just over a year old, pulls the player down from the country or region-scale focus of previous entrants and has the player managing a city-scale transit system. Unlike other games of this sort, in Cities in Motion there isn’t actually any AI company to compete with. Even though you run the system as a fully private enterprise (with very occasional and small subsides from the city), for all intents and purposes you are in charge of a private-sector monopoly, with the only competing transit options being walking and private driving.

An example of a ground-level subway station in-game.

You are given 5 modes of transport to work with. Three of these: busses, streetcars, and heavy rail (subway) will be the bread and butter of most systems, while the latter two, water taxis and helicopters, are expensive and useful in very limited situations. Travelling these vehicles are seven different social groups: several classes of workers, plus students, pensioners, tourists and “drifters.” While the game makes much of these distinctions, and on the individual level these groups do differ in travel patterns, on the aggregate, any system that serves the major areas of the city covers all 5 groups.

This actually alludes to one of the bigger problems with the game; too many aspects of the game mechanics that are supposed to realistically constrain the player  can be ignored with little consequence. Take the economic simulation. While there are real fluctuations in interest rates that affect vehicle cost and bank interest rates, larger changes in the economy are also supposed to affect the tolerance of citizens for fare hikes, with bad economic times leading to lower fare tolerances. In reality, any sufficiently reliable system can charge punishing fares (this writer remembers getting away with charging $16 for a subway fare) and still draw citizens. There are other game mechanics like vehicle attractiveness that are similarly underutilized.

The other problem with this game is that it is not dynamic enough to stay exciting after developing a basic network. While real cities are supposed to expand or contract as time goes by, especially in response to transit connections, Cities in Motion cities expand at predictable intervals in the same places, as scripted by the map. The commuting cycle of the game is also abstracted for simulation reasons; there is no day/night cycle (maps are either permanently day or night), and individual journeys take months, meaning that there is no distinction between, say rush hour and off peak or weekends.

Because of how the time simulation in the game is set up, some of these virtual passengers might have literally been waiting for days.

The transit options I mentioned earlier are generally well done but could use some extra flexibility. Streetcars/light rail can only be built on ground level, as opposed to underground or aboveground, both of which are common in the real world. Similarly, one can’t designate bus lanes on roads on roads. Recurring prompts from citizen groups to create a route between certain points on a map don’t allow for transfers, incentivizing long, otherwise impractical routes. The game simultaneously gives the player too much and too little data—it is impossible to know how profitable an entire line actually is, though player modifications have generally rectified this problem. Similarly, while there is a map that displays where various social groups work and live, there is no clear way of observing traffic flows from one or area building to another. Individually observing specific citizens will have to do in most cases.  These are not insurmountable frustrations, but frustrating they can be.

Final Focus

Graphics: 6.5/10- Graphics are competent, and very good at higher levels, but game gets a lower rating because graphics are rather taxing on the computer system. Various player mods that allow tinkering with camera angles also reveals some flaws not apparent in the regular view.

Gameplay:7/10- The task of the game is pretty simple and well laid out. Watching a transit network work is entertaining, if you’re into that sort of thing. Play is somewhere on the middle of the realism to simplification scale, though some transit experts have pointed out holes in the simulation.

Replay Value:4/10- This is the real Achilles heel of the game. No dynamic city simulation, predictable growth, and a lack of any competing private transport services mean that this game can be dry after that initial burst of construction.

Overall:6/10- I recommend this game if and this is a big if, hence the reverse italic, you already appreciate city simulation games and particularly concentrate on the transit planning aspect of those games, as this writer did. Even those who are familiar with the open source projects in the transit simulation genre, Simutrans and Open TTD, may not appreciate this as much considering the lack of competitive AI. 

If you are new to this blog as a whole, let me give you a bit of an introduction. The unifying theme of this blog is that there is no unifying theme. I am planning on writing on a variety of topics, but mostly media, journalism, at times politics, and things relating to McGill. If you do want to keep reading, here are some of the better posts from the short history of this blog:

My most recent post on the media reaction to Obama’s change of heart on same sex marriage

My account of stumbling upon a Mitt Romney photo op

And some of my commentary on the Quebec student strike

And, of course, the original version of the post that probably brought you here

The Bronx Science campus, as photographed to the right of the main entrance on 205th street

The Bronx High School of Science.

In which I add to the barrels of ink spilled on the controversy.

A version of this post was republished on the Gotham Schools blog. There you also will find the Administration’s response to the points made here. 

The high school I attended for the past 4 years was The Bronx High School of Science. On paper, it is one of the best high schools in New York City, and, indeed, the United States. As is usual with these sorts of things, in reality the place was a bit below such expectations, mostly because of its administration. Here’s the story on that.

How We Got Here

Near the turn of the new millennium, in fall of 1999, former principal Stanley Blumenstein announced his retirement and was replaced by acting Principal William Stark, a longtime fixture at the school. After an exhaustive search conducted by a committee, Stark was recommended to take over as full time principal. Instead, the city’s Schools Chancellor rejected his appointment, despite the support of key stakeholders; students, parents, teachers, and, as would become most controversial in the years ahead, union officials. Instead, then Chancellor Harold O. Levy directed the search committee to search further afield, putting an emphasis on finding a Nobel Laureate. Several committees were set up to assess the school, and before long, acting Principal Stark decamped to a Long Island school in early 2001. In an apparent effort to save face, the city offered him the job just as he tendered his resignation.

Morale sagged at the school among teachers and some retired ahead of schedule. Columnists slammed the DOE’s mishandling of the situation, and a former principal was reinstalled for another interim stint.

And then, it seemed as if the controversy should have ended. At the end of 2000-01 school year, the principal search came full circle and promoted Valerie Reidy, head of the biology department, to run the school. Both students and teachers were skeptical of the choice, and the new principal’s leadership did not go down too well with the student body, as a student who witnessed the transition describes.

Trouble in the Math Department (I)

A host of controversies occurred over the intervening years between her appointment and my own arrival in the fall of 2007. For the purposes of this not becoming an e-book, look to the links at the bottom of this post for articles covering that. When I arrived at the school, I noticed quickly the almost reflexive dislike the older students had towards the administration. At first, I thought this was just an expression of typical teenage anti-authority bullshit, but then I noticed our school had popped up on the news. A student walkout occurred in the second half of my freshman year, and in 2009, our sophomore year, nearly the entire math department filed a complaint through the city union against the assistant principal of the department, Rosemarie Jahoda, alleging intimidation and improper administrative conduct (full text). Meanwhile, teachers fled the department in droves; both of the math department teachers I had freshman year were gone by my junior year.

Treatment of Students

weekly reports on our cutting from the school

In an effort to go green, the school began sending these weekly emails reminding us how bad we were.

The one aspect of the Bronx Science administration that, for various reasons, has been ignored in media coverage is how it affected students. The Reidy administration managed the school in a rather autocratic fashion, with a somewhat obsessive focus on security and control of students. In the first years of her management, a cut policy was instituted at the school, with every unexcused absence from a class resulting in a detention. Students with more than 5 detentions were considered to have their “privileges suspended”, here meaning they could not be on sports teams, attend clubs, were put at the bottom of the pile for applications to all-important Advanced Placement and Honors classes, and could not buy tickets for prom. Even worse, cuts were carried over from year to year, so skipping a freshman elective could still count against a junior angling for an AP class. The cutting policy was one of the many factors in the 2008 walkout.  The administration attempted to institute a “zero tolerance” policy for cuts before my senior year—a single cut would result in all of the above penalties, but that was eventually shelved after uproar.

sign indicating video surveillance

Part of the administration’s relentless focus on our safety. And control.

A “state of the art” security camera system was installed in 2003, which fed both to a security desk of NYPD school safety officers in the lobby and a flat screen television in the principal’s well appointed office. During my junior year, the school installed alarms on all but two of the exits around the school, with the penalty for exiting out one of these doors a principal’s suspension from school. At the same time, carrying the school ID card at all times was made mandatory on pain of a comparatively lenient 5 detentions. At the time, I spoke to school administrators for a piece for the school newspaper on the policy, and they cited incidents in which security was uncertain as to the identity of students in the school. No specific incidents were cited, nor was the frequency of such occurrences noted. What can be said is that almost all forms of crime in the area around the school had decreased prior to the enactment of the policies, according to NYPD data.

Trouble in the Math Department (II)

By the end of junior year, I had since adopted the default attitude of vague disdain for the principal and administration. At the end of April, the union complaint the math teachers had filed was resolved by judgment from an arbitrator. The report (which, for the interested, is at the bottom of the linked article) more or less corroborated the complaints of the teachers and recommended that both the offending administrator and the union chapter leader, the well liked math teacher Peter Lamphere, be removed from the school. The city’s education department took Reidy’s side anyway and essentially told the arbitrator to shove it.

At the time, the newspaper, the Science Survey, had just selected its editors for the last issue and the coming year, and Seán Toomey and I were slotted as heads of the editorial section. As the situation in the math department had again hit the headlines (articles on the arbitrator’s decision appeared in both city tabloids, the New York Post and Daily News as well as the Times’ website), we all agreed that it would be incredibly unusual if the school paper didn’t have anything to say on the matter. We (this here includes the editors in chief at the time and our faculty adviser) set about drafting an editorial addressing the issue.

Getting an article approved in your school newspaper covering an incident that garnered the institution bad publicity citywide is the sort of thing that probably would be a chore in any circumstance. But it was an even dicier situation at the Survey, where the administration took its power of prior review over the paper seriously. A pre-publication proof of the paper had to be sent to the principal and English department head about a week before publication. They would then take their time combing through our proof pages, ferreting out grammatical errors, but more importantly, criticism. Articles on rather banal school activities had sentences scrubbed because they could be interpreted as critical of the administration, or, god forbid, Department of Education policy.

So as we crafted the editorial, we decided right away to not even attempt to take a stand on the merits of the arbitration complaint—we were constrained to the point that we literally could not dare opine on the school’s wrongness. Instead, we went for a much softer message that school administrators should probably level with students in the event that a faculty dispute makes citywide news. We emailed the principal our intentions, and Seán and I had a cordial meeting in her office to get her side of the situation. I can say that she is more polite in person than press accounts have indicated. We even encouraged the principal to write her own response to our editorial, which we would run unedited, next to our already milquetoast piece.

A week of email correspondence ensued, when we tweaked and shifted the piece on advice of our faculty adviser, the outgoing editors, and rather terse responses from the principal. We were all pleasantly surprised and thought that we actually would be able to run the piece. By the end of the week, we were ready to publish and emailed her for approval. No dice, she replied.

And so our last issue of the year instead featured a short rant on chairs, the typical graduating editor reflection, and a rather large picture of a folding chair on the opinion page.

More troubles at the Survey

a candid photo of we the staff of the "Survey"

The Class of 2011 editing staff on the Survey. If you’re having trouble finding me in the picture, I’m the black guy. Seán is to my left in the blue windbreaker.

When the editing staff returned from summer to run the paper full time, we had come to accept the content restrictions and work around them. We became rather good at the practice of self censorship, for example barely hinting at the teacher turmoil in a “The 2000s at Bronx Science” retrospective we had run the previous year. When the (actual) police were called to respond to an incident at the school during the traditional start-of-year senior event, we were not allowed to mention their intervention in our story; consequently, we ran nothing on the subject in the fall issue. Opinion pieces on “controversial” issues (the bulk of the disagreement came from the administration on these sorts of things) had to be run as “pro/con” pieces, with a student writing a piece parroting the administration’s position, to create the impression of disagreement among the student body. Examples of this at work include an opinion editorial one of our staff did criticizing the increased use of an online grading system. The system was widely disliked by students, but one wouldn’t get that impression from the equal billing we had to give both sides.

The biggest dispute over the paper, and the only one that became a big enough issue to leak out as a series of rumors to the rest of the student body, was the controversy last year over the annual April satire issue. In previous years, the administration had typically loosened the grip here, allowing us to run content that actually satirized the administration (one of my favorite covers from the year before I joined the paper stylized the school as a sort of Soviet totalitarian state) and toed the limit of propriety (the cover article on the joke issue our junior year, my first year on the paper, was on a certain well endowed graduate coming to speak at our graduation).

When a joke is funny, and then isn’t.

So no one batted an eye when some of the staff on the paper decided to run a mock “March Madness” bracket in the satire issue. The idea was that a bunch of teachers at the school were written as competing in a series of one-on-one basketball games. The piece seemed to have passed muster with the administrators, as we were allowed to publish.

Nay, how we were mistaken. In the piece, which was took up the whole bottom fold of the back page, several portions raised complaint. A male teacher was referred to have lost a game against a female teacher because he was “too focused” on her “body movement”. Later in the piece, two female teachers were noted to have “showed their exquisite ball handling skills, while riding all the way to the final four.” Another male teacher was then noted to have won the tournament, however, by “finishing on top.”

Two of the teachers mentioned—one of them the “focused” male teacher—complained to the administration about the content of the issue, and suddenly, it seemed as if there was an oversight in the content editing process. On our end, of course. The assistant principal of the English department sat in on our traditional end of issue debrief, and our faculty adviser seemed to continually hint at what sort of process “improvements” we could make in her moderating of the conversation. The next day, principal Reidy herself made an appearance at the Survey room to essentially lecture us on our lack of propriety. She made a concerted effort to tell us she was not visiting to “intimidate” us, which as you can imagine at the time rang particularly hollow. We didn’t hear much on the subject after that; rumors swirled that the principal had ordered all copies of the paper still in the school trashed, and our stacks of excess issues suddenly were missing the satire issue.

It is unclear what happened regarding that issue, but I can say that the Survey currently has a different faculty adviser. Whether or not this had anything to do with the above mentioned dispute is anyone’s guess. In my rather non-objective view, she was a capable manager of the paper and excellent teacher, but such is how things go.

Final Thoughts

I still talk to some people in the class about to graduate this year. Little has changed, except for media exposure. Just under half of the social studies department fled the school the year after we graduated, including some much beloved Advanced Placement teachers. Half of the social studies teachers I had in my time at the school were included in this exodus. In December New York magazine revisited the controversy in a feature piece, keeping it in the public eye. Earlier that fall, the group “Take Back Bronx Science” was formed, and successfully organized a January protest. The effort since has sputtered, and the group itself was criticized for its tactics by other students.

My guess is as good as yours as to whether this situation will ever improve. Some critics of Michael Bloomberg’s mayoral control of schools have taken this situation as an instance of the negative consequences of the Department of Education’s methods. I’m not willing to go that far, and see this more as a rouge principal allowed to continue to lord over her fief because the school still produces enviable results on paper. While Science has consistently received an “A” overall grade on the citywide report card of school performance, one grade of “C” stands out. That one would be for “School Environment,” a grade based on the responses to an anonymous parent-teacher-student survey compiled every year. A link to the details of that survey is right below.

Even more on the story: Links

Learning Environment survey results for 2010-2011: http://schools.nyc.gov/OA/SchoolReports/2010-11/Survey_2011_X445.pdf

All New York Times coverage of the school for the past decade: http://topics.nytimes.com/topics/reference/timestopics/organizations/b/bronx_high_school_of_science/index.html?s=newest&

Some excellent coverage from the now online-only New York Sun paper on the school’s woes: http://www.nysun.com/search.php?cx=011149266269070419472%3A7p4afqogkoy&cof=FORID%3A9&ie=ISO-8859-1&q=bronx+science+&sa=Search

Full DOE statistics page on the school: http://schools.nyc.gov/SchoolPortals/10/X445/AboutUs/Statistics/default.htm

A New York teacher blog post detailing why would-be teachers should avoid the school: http://jd2718.wordpress.com/2008/12/22/do-not-apply-the-bronx-high-school-of-science/

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