Advocate for green jobs, healthy food, will help lead charter school
Many of the students Stephen Ritz taught in biology class at South Bronx High School in the 1980s still live in the area, and he remembers most of them by name.
Thirty years and several education awards later, a revitalized Ritz is teaching their children some of the same science and citizenship lessons he taught them.
He hopes the kids are having as much fun as he is.
In September, Ritz began as the new Dean of Students and Community Partnership Coordinator at the Hyde Leadership Charter School on Bryant Avenue in Hunts Point. He says the new position will help him preach the wonders of going green to young people in a neighborhood where he has long fought alongside local advocates for economic and environmental revival.
“I’m the luckiest guy on the planet,” said Ritz on a recent weekday in the school’s spartan, concrete courtyard, shortly after students were dismissed. “I’m thrilled to be in the community I love and have been championing for years.”
In 2009, Ritz won praise from the likes of former President Bill Clinton for his plan to create a school in or near Hunts Point, that would train underprivileged young people for green jobs. The idea was originally proposed by Majora Carter, the founder of local environmental non-profit, Sustainable South Bronx.
But the city’s Department of Education scuttled the idea, saying the credentials of the faculty proposed by the school’s masterminds weren’t good enough.
At the time, Ritz said he was “appalled” by the city’s decision, adding the idea behind the school was that “privilege or zip code should not entitle you to a better education or limit your access.”
Despite the setback, Ritz has continued to advocate for green education for urban youth. In July, he was one of 10 educators nationwide to win a Chevrolet GREEN award for exemplifying “the very best of what educators are doing to teach young people to lead efforts to protect our environment.”
As Ritz stood in Hyde’s courtyard after school in early October, seeing his students off, the parent of a fifth-grader came up to greet him.
“He eats and breathes this stuff,” said Gina Smith, adding she met Ritz over the summer at a nearby tenant meeting “in the middle of the ghetto.”
“He looked like an activist,” she said. “He looked like he belonged there.”
Two years ago, Ritz took a group of teens from The Point CDC’s ACTION program, to install a green roof on a tony home in the Hamptons. A former student, Kendrick Martinez, 17, remembers Ritz’s enthusiasm.
“His quirkiness is something that makes you smile,” Martinez said. “It’s more of a learning experience” than a job.
Ritz’s rapid fire speech is peppered with homegrown axioms like “It’s easier to raise healthy children than fix broken men” and weathered motivational phrases like “si, se puede,” (“yes, we can”). He prefers not to reveal his age so his students can go on thinking “I’m anywhere between twenty-something and ninety,” he says.
Ritz arrived after a frustrating year at the High School for Innovation in Harlem, where he “didn’t like the person I was when I got home.”
But back on more comfortable ground, he says he will continue pushing to help students understand how they can benefit from planting and eating nutritious food. He hopes to launch a biodiversity center at the school. It would have animals, reptiles and fish, and a “stem center” that would help teach the students how to reduce their impact on the environment.
From the school courtyard, Ritz spotted a familiar face in front of an apartment building—a student he’d taught in biology class almost 30 years ago. He crossed the street to reminisce with her.
The former student, Carmen Poll, remembered those science classes as high energy affairs, where the teacher’s steady stream of optimism was punctuated by the same tireless encouragement for which his new students are coming to know him now.
“I’m the oldest sixth-grader you’ll ever meet,” Ritz affirmed.