Urban Educator

Story by DANIEL BEEKMAN (dbeekman@nydailynews.com)

Stephen Ritz, Uban Educator at  Bronx New Yok School talks about gardening on.

A celebrated classroom farm that yielded fresh produce and great jobs for students at a South Bronx public high school has been quietly shut down.

For two years, Discovery High School special education teacher Stephen Ritz used vertical garden plots known as “green walls” to teach science and technology.

He grew crops such as tomatoes and celery with his students, who sold some of the produce at school and donated the rest to a local food pantry. Lesson plans developed there are now used by the State University of New York.

“I’m disappointed….the kids loved it,” said Ritz, a veteran teacher, speaking out this week about the school’s termination of the Green Bronx Machine program last August. “It really took root because it cultivated minds and harvested hope.”

The city Department of Education referred questions to Discovery Principal Rolando Rivera, who failed to return repeated requests for an interview about why the program was shut down.

Ritz first began growing food with students years ago when he worked at Millennium Art Academy in Soundview. They cultivated plots at local community gardens. He created Green Bronx Machine at Discovery after meeting George Irwin of Green Living Technologies, a vertical garden manufacturer based upstate Ritz and Irwin set up green walls at Discovery, began growing veggies and developed a curriculum.

Meanwhile, students trained by Irwin through Green Bronx Machine snagged summer jobs installing green roofs. “We still get calls from all over the world to implement the program we developed in the Bronx,” he said. “We engaged students in science and math and gardening. We provided living wage jobs to young adults who society had written off. I don’t understand why the program was shut down.”

Ritz teaches troubled, low-income teenagers, but said every student who took part in the program has begun attending college or is on track to. “In the Bronx, we tend to eat not healthy,” said Discovery and Green Bronx Machine alumnus Nathali Soriano, 18, now at Monroe College. “But when you walked into our classroom, it had an organic vibe. It felt fresh. “Green Bronx Machine really put me on the right path,” said Soriano, an aspiring environmental lawyer. “It really helped me.”

The program won several awards and parents stopped by Discovery to buy fresh food. “Steve is a guy who can get people energized about healthy eating,” said state Sen. Gustavo Rivera, who attended a farmers market at Discovery. “He has proven he can get students to care about school. I hope that continues.”

Green Bronx Machine withered last August when Ritz was moved to a basement classroom and told to stop growing food at Discovery, he said. Ritz did not blame Rivera, who he said was a “tireless, dedicated” educator. But Ritz admitted he is disappointed about the fate of Green Bronx Machine and hopes to revive it elsewhere.

dbeekman@nydailynews.com

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