A Brief Background
This year, our Local Leaders at STEM Academy are working tirelessly to improve food access in their community by building tower gardens and obtaining Solar Powered Heating for their greenhouse (which is currently unusable during the winter months).
After their meeting with Mr. Ritz earlier in the year, our Local Leaders were invited to visit Mr. and Mrs. Ritz of the Green Bronx Machine at Community School 55, to see how the Ritz’s were able to turn gardening into a school and community wide phenomenon.
The Green Bronx Machine teaches sustainability, STEM, entrepreneurial skills and agricultural production. However, the main goal behind Mr. and Mrs. Ritz non-profit: growing healthy, educated, successful and sustainability focused students. By showing students that they can learn, earn, and grow in even the most challenging of areas, they help build a better, stronger, more united community.
9:30 Our Local Leaders Journey Begins
Meeting at 9:30, the students along with their 2 faculty advisors Mr. Piasecki and Mr. Cos, Chester Superintendent Dr. Parkinson, and myself awaited anxiously at the gates of Community School 55.
Mr. Ritz, standing in front of us, all smiles, begins the field trip by giving us a brief overview of the history of the school and its surrounding neighborhood.
Looking at the school – wide, multi-storied beautiful red brick building, a fresh coat of paint on its white trim, and lined with green and blue garden boxes that wrap around the entire biulding – Community School 55 is idyllic.
Yet, as Mr. Ritz gestures to the shot out windows of neighboring apartment complexes, the effects of poverty and disinvestment in the area make it abundantly clear, this school is more than just a school – it’s a safe haven to children and their families.
In this area of the Bronx, there are no grocery stores nearby, no farmers markets, and no train stations to take people to the abundance of jobs, that are only 7 min away in nearby Manhattan. The nearest train station is 18 blocks away. It is a forgotten neighborhood and a food desert.
Yet Mr. and Mrs. Ritz accompanied with their tower gardens, greenhouse, and lab/kitchen/classroom, transforms their limited space for growing healthy minds and bodies, into a food oasis for the entire community.
Upon entering the building Mr. Ritz introduced us to the once gym-turned cafeteria. the second spot he shares his fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs he and his students grow via their home-grown salad bar.
Heading up a few dizzying flights of stairs, our leaders buzzed with anticipation to see Mr. Ritz room – where all the magic happens.
10:00 Walking Into a “Si Se Peude” Green Classroom
Entering Mr. Ritz room feels like stepping into the imaginary classroom, come-to-life version of Ms. Frizzle’s Magic School Bus. As a result, the air seems fresher, lighter, colors more vibrant, and there is an energy like no other. Cue the “ooos” and “ahhhs.” The entire room is painted in shades of calming blues and greens – it’s welcoming and it is hard to feel anything but at ease. However, while the atmosphere is relaxing, every inch of Mr. Ritz classroom is designed to engage.
A Few Highlights:
- Plants galore
- Bicycle powered smoothie machines
- Tower gardens
- Covered, ultraviolet seedling germination room
- Fully functional and kid friendly kitchen and science lab
- An aquarium with 55 brightly colored fish, named after everyone of his current students (many of which have multiple names depending upon the day)
- A newly created and experimental hydroponic strawberry garden
- Signature Stephen Ritz mural
- A selection of Mr. Ritz’s signature Cheese Hats
Truly, his room embodies the “Si Se Puede” slogan that embellishes his front facing wall. There is no way that anyone can step into his room and not learn something new, or surprising, or have their curiosity piqued.
Our students felt this as well, since as soon as we sat down, questions came spoutingout like water flowing out of a watering hose – quickly and excitedly. Everywhere our Local Leaders turned there was a story and lesson to be told and Mr. and Mrs. Ritz had knew them all.
11:00 Closing Out The Day
As the tour winded down, Mr. Ritz left our local leaders with some parting words of wisdom: “don’t let anyone steal your brand,” be your authentic self , stand up for what you believe in and never be afraid to speak out against the injustices of this world – because our world has too much of it.
While our Local Leaders may have gone for the fun opportunity, they left with a newfound appreciation for the infinite possibilities that their tower gardens and greenhouse could turn into for themselves, their peers, and their community.