Education / Environment

For South Bronx educator, it’s easy being green

Green Bronx Machine

Stephen Ritz.

New memoir recounts teaching career

Not long ago, Stephen Ritz was a teacher in the Bronx, beset by indifferent, or sometimes hostile, administrators while he labored in relative obscurity to reach students who knew in their bones the system didn’t care about them, in school or in their impoverished neighborhoods.

Today Ritz has become widely known, even famous. More than a million people have viewed an online video in which he lays out his ideas about teaching in poor communities. When he’s not in his demonstration classroom at CS 55 in Claremont Village, he might be found in California, Canada or Colombia. He jets to the Middle East to advise a chain of international schools based in Dubai. He has made the acquaintance of Bill Clinton and met Pope Francis as he barnstorms around the world to showcase a curriculum based on growing food in classrooms.

Ritz maintains his students harvest not only healthy food but lessons in science, math and social justice. They are engaged, they want to come to school, they perform far above society’s expectations and they gain knowledge that leads them to jobs and insight that leads them to fruitful lives.

More than 5,000 schools in the United States now use some version of his curriculum, according to a memoir, “The Power of a Plant,” published on May 2, in which Ritz traces how he transformed himself as he transformed his classroom.

It is a story rooted in the South Bronx.

With no teacher training, Ritz began his career in a special education classroom at South Bronx High School in a Mott Haven devastated by abandonment, arson and crack.

He gained his students’ trust by entering their world and inviting them into his. His students hungered for problems they could solve, he writes. So the class figured out the fastest way to get across the Bronx by subway. They measured the angles of a baseball diamond. One day he produced his pay stub and asked his students to help him make a budget. Math wasn’t abstract any more.

Later, at Walton High School, he made a mistake that set him on the course he still pursues. When a box of bulbs he hadn’t ordered arrived in his classroom, he stowed it away under a radiator and forgot about it.

Then a fight broke out. Spotting what he thought he could use as a missile, one student pulled out a bulb–to discover it was sprouting a beautiful yellow flower. Enthralled, the students stopped fighting and started unpacking daffodils, which had bloomed prematurely because of the radiator.

It turned out that the bulbs had been intended to beautify Poe Park, and soon the students were volunteering to plant them. Ritz formed them into an organization he dubbed the Green Teens, which began to plant on school grounds and then to create a community garden.

The sight of tough-looking, tough-talking Bronx teenagers planting gardens brought TV cameras, and the publicity brought the Green Teens to the attention of Majora Carter, then an environmental activist and the head of Sustainable South Bronx. She made it possible for the students to help plant a green roof above her office in the BankNote building.

As his students won certificates and awards, jobs and admission to college, Ritz began to think beyond his classroom. Teaming up again with Carter, he tried to found a high school in Hunts Point. The plan had the support of Sustainable South Bronx, the borough president, The Point and The Hunts Point Express.

The Department of Education refused to consider it.

From local news to the explosion of attention from his TED talk, publicity has regularly been Ritz’s ally. He would be the first to say he’s a shameless self-promoter (on behalf of his ideas and his students). As his career has unfolded he has refined his technique. The teacher Stephen Ritz has created the character Stephen Ritz, who mugs for cameras costumed in an outrageous Swiss Cheese hat and one of a selection of bowties adorned with Scrabble tiles or circuit boards.

But back at Walton, after the failure of the Hunts Point high school project, his attention-getting ways caused trouble. He renamed the Green Teens the Green Bronx Machine and incorporated it as a non-profit organization. Its members wore cool t-shrits designed by a student. Others clamored to join up, causing friction with teachers and, in the eyes of the principal, distracting them from college prep.

Thwarted at Walton, soon Ritz was headed back to Hunts Point, as a dean at Hyde Leadership Charter School, where he forged a collaboration between Hyde grade school students and high school students at JVL Wildcat Academy that led to a trip to the White House.

Today at CS 55 he works in a large, formerly derelict, library transformed into the plant-lined National Health, Wellness & Learning Center where he trains other teachers and spreads the gospel of the green classroom, seeking to unlock “the under-utilized talent in low-status and marginalized communities,” which he calls “the greatest untapped resource in the world.”

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