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Bronx Breakdown: Star Bronx Teacher Banished to Basement & More (Updated)


[Video: See an introduction to the Green Bronx Machine and then read about its plight below.]

This week on the Bronx Breakdown we break news about Discovery High School teacher Steve Ritz whose successful program somehow landed him in the basement and unable to continue the work he started. Plus, speaking out about the unspeakable violence over jackets, the Bronx’s famous new resident and what you should do this weekend.

The story of Steve Ritz, the special ed teacher at Discovery High School who turned an in-class science project into a training ground for environmentally-friendly food production and “green” jobs, has been well-documented here and in the pages of the Norwood News. It’s garnered nation attention and spawned a separate nonprofit group, Green Bronx Machine, that has nearly 3,000 Facebook fans. Last year, some 500 people came to Discovery and bought fresh produce that Ritz’s students had grown.

Tomorrow, Ritz is giving a presentation about the program at a high-profile TEDx (Technology, Education, Design) event in Manhattan called, “Changing the Way We Eat.” The Norwood native will attempt to show 245 slides in 13 minutes. Most of those slides will be from the Discovery High classroom where it all began more than two years ago.

There’s just one little problem. The program no longer exists at Discovery.

Local administrators forced it into homelessness this fall when Ritz was banished from his large, well-lit classroom with running water and high ceilings to a cramped, glorified closet in the basement that he shares with an English teacher. A large pipe hangs from the middle of the ceiling that might injure a big man on the Walton basketball team. There isn’t room to fit the vertical growing walls that Ritz used to teach and train his students and there isn’t any water source to feed the plants even if the walls did fit.

This has forced Ritz into an uncomfortable and frustrating position. Ritz says he often gets calls from people and organizations who want to get involved or replicate what he is doing. He’s been reluctant to criticize his administrators, including Principal Rolando Rivera, who Ritz calls “one of  the hardest-working principals I’ve ever met.” But he also wants to strike while the iron is hot and grow the program while there is so much momentum.

At this point, that prospect is about as difficult as growing a vertical garden in a cramped basement classroom.

Ideally, Ritz says,  “I’d like the program re-incarnated here where it was born. We’ve certainly met and exceeded expectations. And we’ve done it all for free!”

If it doesn’t work at Walton or Discovery — and Ritz says the administration, aside from moving him into the basement, has explicitly told him the program could no longer continue — then he will have to take his show elsewhere.

(Rivera could not be reached not for comment. [Update: Ritz says he was told by administrators they needed his old classroom to better handle an influx of new students.)

Even without Ritz, Discovery is a success story — having scored an “A” grade on its last two progress reports from the DOE — and Rivera, a tireless worker who lives nearby, is a big reason behind that success. So it appears odd that they would go to such lengths to eliminate such a strong, successful program like Ritz’s. (The program was even highlighted in a recent edition of Principal Leadership magazine.)

Up until now, Ritz has remained quiet about the situation, but attention coming from tomorrow’s TEDx event has unearthed the elephant in the basement. Now reporters (like myself) and elected officials, including Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. and State Senator Gustavo Rivera, are trying to find out what’s going on.

If Ritz can’t “re-incarnate” the program somewhere else on the Walton campus or another DOE location, he has another idea: The Kingsbridge Armory, which you could hit with an organic tomato from Walton. Just give him a little corner of a space, he says, and he’ll grow food for “pennies on the dollar,” employ people at a living wage (plus benefits!) and feed the hungriest and most unhealthy borough in the city.

“Give me a few square feet of the Armory,” Ritz says. “Anywhere. I don’t care. Put me next to bullets. I’ll grow on top of bullets.”

But not in a cramped school basement.

Violence Over Apparel
In the past two months, we’ve seen two young Bronx boys, a 4-year-old and an 11-year-old, shot, apparently over stolen designer jackets. It’s a sad but true commentary on our misplaced values, says Walter Bell, a counselor at two Bronx hospitals who is now the chairman of Community Board 7’s public safety committee. “Society glorifies material wealth,” Bell told me the other night at CB7’s general meeting. “It’s to the point where we place more value on a Pele Pele jacket than the person who is wearing it.”

Bell wants to discuss this and other public safety issues at a forum at Monroe College’s King Hall Gymn, 2501 Jerome Ave., next Friday night, from 6 to 9 p.m.

Jerome, the Bronx Opossum
Meet Jerome, New York City’s most famous opossum, who stowed away on a Bronx-bound D train car and was reportedly later released into some wooded area near the train yard next to Jerome Avenue (hence the name) in Bedford Park.

What You Should Do This Weekend in the Bronx
I’ve got a couple of ideas. 1) Watch Ritz give his presentation at the TEDx event. The program starts at 10:30 a.m. Ritz is supposed to speak sometime between 1:20 and 3:15 p.m. Click here for the livestream. 2) Warm yourself up at the Botanical Garden’s Caribbean Garden, which opens tomorrow.  3) Go to the Hunts Point Recreation Center,  765 Manida St., tomorrow, between 11 a.m and 4 p.m., for the second annual Winterfest. You may need your snow shoes to get there. We’re supposed to get two to six inches tomorrow.

In any case, enjoy the Bronx. And please, tell us what you think in the comments section or send us an e-mail at norwoodnews@norwoodnews.org.

Like this story? Leave your comments below.

5 thoughts on “Bronx Breakdown: Star Bronx Teacher Banished to Basement & More (Updated)

  1. Stephen Ritz

    Alex – your article raises many interesting points. When I first started this program, I myself never imagined that ultimately, it would be this successful; proof that properly planted seeds can lead to an amazing harvest! As a teacher and aspiring building leader, I always have and always will respect the judgement of my principal – especially one who has worked tirelessly and endlessly to transform our school and culture. The reality of our school is that as we continue to emerge as a preeminent college preparatory school, that lofty goal needs to be the singular focus of the mission and vision if we are to achieve those goals while still a young and emerging school and faculty. While I would have loved to see the program continue, I understand capacity constraints. Specifically, my classroom was reclaimed to accomodate numerous classes in excess of 30 students each. Principals have to make tough decisions in the best interests of their schools – to date, Rolando Rivera has done a remarkable and admirable job steering our ship. Ideally, we can find a home for this program and the magnitude of people it serves as a campus-wide initiative; particularly as we seek to address issues related to the Bronx CAN Initiative, Bronx Health Reach, Living Wage, Intergenerational Programing and Veterans Afffairs, the future of Kingsbridge Armory and the health and welfare of local students and their families. Our Farmers market routinely puts the bake sale and less healthy fundraising options to shame in ways that make an abundance of dollars and a lifetime of common sense.

    1. Roger C. Steed

      Mr. Ritz,
      I am aware you have been covered up by people across the U.S. seeking to replicate your success. I am one of those with a something to add. I believe your idea should spark a change for the police departments, ethnic citizens and the poverty stricken in our nation. My suggestion is to use the police officers in a pilot program to teach what you have found so much success in. It would be a winning situation for three areas of our culture that are in the most need. First, the police would be able to form personal relationships on a daily basis in the classroom. Second, the students would benefit from the police teaching them and form new relationships. They would also benefit from the relationships that form from a positive and life changing training that they can use to provide food for themselves and others. Third, the neighborhood and possibly later the nation would begin to reverse the hunger situation with the nutritious food grown and distributed. I believe your approach is valid and could be even more effective by using the two groups, police and antagonists to join forces and become life long friends. My thinking is “Friends don’t shoot friends.” If children are our nations hope, they must be shown how to succeed. What I’ve seen are most programs trying to stop crime while it’s happening. I believe with your program, we can work to stop it before it starts. It costs much less to educate our youth than to incarcerate and rehabilitate them. I have said, “The best societies are built by those minds who touch the greatness that lies sleeping in the hearts of its citizens.” I don’t know if this comment will reach you but I would like to begin a dialogue with about these subjects.”

  2. rebecca

    What a shame. Bring something good to these lower socio economic school districts expecially Special Ed, and banish to the basement. Home school is the way to go until I get my family the hell out of NY.

  3. George Irwin

    Where do I start? It was 3 short years ago when we taught the very first class after meeting Steve. As a former teacher I appreciate the the way in which students were now engaged. Authentic learning! STEM at it’s very best. We personally contributed time, materials and love to the efforts of Mr. Ritz. He has helped make a program that is now being taught at the State University of NY (SUNY) schools and other schools not only in NYS but now across the globe. He (Steve) is a champion within his domain. Rhetorically speaking….Data, data, data is what is important to the economic contribution of a school. Our data for three years running: 100% graduation rates, 93% attendance, 100% post graduation employment or higher ed learning! This one classroom and program has shown it can change lives! To Steves point, it didn’t cost a dime and the program after a small initial investment pays for itself year after year after year!

  4. Borozo

    Hey! If you get into contact with Mr. Norwood again, or if this is the oraingl video by the film maker, is there one saying why he wanted to become a physical therapist and if this was his first decision as a major? PLEASE. and then message it to me if that’s too much to ask. I’m sorry. I just want to succeed..

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