Stephen Ritz is a South Bronx teacher/administrator who believes that students shouldn’t have to leave their community to live, learn and earn in a better one. Ritz teaches science in the nation’s poorest congressional district, at Community School 55 in the South Bronx.
After suffering the tragic loss of his twins, Stephen refocused his energy on helping other kids. Stephen teaches in Public School 55 in New York City’s South Bronx. The school had a 17% graduation rate, violence, poverty, and 99% of the kids attending the school qualified for free or reduced lunches. 77% of the kids Stephen teaches have some form of learning disabilities. If they had proper pre-natal nutrition, many of those disabilities wouldn’t be there.
The Green Bronx Machine.
Stephen was given a box of daffodil bulbs and hid them behind the school’s radiator to prevent the kids from throwing them at each other. One day, one of the kids discovered the daffodils had bloomed, and there were hundreds of flowers behind the radiator.
This got Stephen thinking. They could grow food indoors and outdoors all year round, using a new technology that is low cost and requires 90% less space and 90% less water. Stephen and his students have installed over 100 gardens in New York City alone. They’ve pioneered a food production business that gives food security and urban renewal, while teaching students key skills at the same time.
The program has also created a boost in the health for everyone involved. Stephen himself has lost over 100 pounds. The students, many of whom had learning disabilities created by poor nutrition, have also seen an increase in their nutritional health, and overall well-being.
The program, which is fully integrated into school’s the core curriculum, has raised the school’s daily attendance rate from 40% to 93%, with 100% passing state standardized tests, and increased gradation. It also created over 2,200 student jobs, and local crime has fallen significantly.
Reaping the benefits
While Stephen had to overcome a lot of bureaucratic, political, and socio-economic odds to see the project through to fruition, He overcame those odds to take generations of young, underprivileged at-risk students to incredible academic and economic success.
Stephen was invited to The White House Garden
Stephen’s extended student and community family have grown over 25,000 pounds of vegetables in the Bronx while generating extraordinary academic performance.
His Bronx classroom pioneered the first indoor edible wall in NYC DOE which routinely generates enough produce to feed 450 students healthy meals and trains the youngest nationally certified workforce in America. His students, traveling from Boston to Rockefeller Center to the Hamptons, earn living wage on their way to graduation.
“I love teaching because every day I get to do something great! Every day I get to lead children and colleagues on a new quest, we get to do something new, we practice, we dream, we learn and we work together! I’m also the oldest sixth grader you’ll ever meet; inherently, I too am very curious and easily excited – it’s a perfect storm!”
Stephen Ritz has been nominated for the Global Teachers prize for his work on the Green Bronx machine. Going far beyond his focus on academics, he is on a mission to improve job development and address environmental, food and social justice issues in the Bronx and beyond.
If awarded the Prize, Stephen would use the funds to invest in the Health, Wellness and Biodiversity Center that he is currently working to set up in the South Bronx – “a place of wonder, inquiry and engagement for students, teachers, parents and the whole community”.
Stephen Ritz has inspired Americans everywhere with his message of hope, urgency, resilience and Amer-I-Can innovation.
Featured photo credit: Peter Hershey via unsplash.com