In January of this year (2016), Stephen Ritz brought a packed auditorium of educators and education practitioners to their feet in rousing applause after sharing his accomplishments with the Green Bronx Machine project at the What Works Steam event in Dubai.
The self-proclaimed Bronx County, Chief Eternal Optimist is committed to inspiring healthy living locally and globally. Having observed first hand the various transformations of the Borough, he realised that his students were struggling from health related issues caused by their immediate environment.
Stephen believes that as Amer-I-Cans, there are no limits to what they can accomplish. He took his relentless passion for teaching and helping others and funnelled it into The Green Bronx Machine project, which has resulted in healthier students, a happier school and community.
He has worn many hats at different stages throughout his career, special education teacher with a love of literacy, teacher of mathematics, administrator, Dean of Students, coach, classroom teacher, mentor, and agriculturist. Stephen also holds various licenses and certifications but considers his salient strengths, as his can-do attitude, relentless sense of passion, purpose and hope.
Stephen is no longer an observer of the transformation process that is happening in the Bronx; he is actively using education to engage others in the transformation of the physical space and in so doing transforming lives globally.
The Green Bronx machine project transformed your students’ lives, the school and the community. why did you start the project?
People should not have to leave their community to live, learn and earn in a better one. I believe that those who are and were “apart from” success can be “a part of” success in ways that benefit 100% of society. Together, we can all prosper and move people into spheres of success, accomplishment and independence they never imagined or experienced before. In my community, many have nothing to lose and everything to gain. So, community based work rooted in self-care, environmental justice and living wage opportunities make good dollars and good sense, while teaching those who have limited interface with nature about nurture. When you teach children about nature, you teach them to nurture. When we teach children to nurture, we as a society collectively embrace our better nature. I am a resident, parent and community member. I simply want the best options and opportunities for the community I live in. I want to focus on greater global good and respect for mother earth.
What were some of the challenges during the initial stages?
I tend to see challenges as opportunities dressed in work clothes. I also relish the opportunity to move those who are skeptical and defiant to supportive and compliant. Getting people to see the forest beyond the trees is part of it. However, the love and support that we received, and most importantly, the results we have achieved speak for themselves. Funding remains a challenge simply because there are so many issues facing communities like mine, but we are entrepreneurial, industrious and results oriented. Our outcomes far exceed our limited income. Now, we are looking to scale and replicate, therein lies a whole new set of challenges but we are up to the task and grateful to be at the table of opportunity. This is all about stewardship.
How can projects like this be replicated in other schools?
Passion, purpose and hope to be encouraged, fostered and nourished. Every teacher, student and community member possesses these traits and has an inner champion within. It is how we allow these traits to be expressed and nurtured that make all the difference. I believe in starting small, celebrating often and thanking those who help and hinder along the way. Exclusivity builds market share and interest. Never forget the mandate of your day job aligned to what you feel compelled to do. Each day provides us with an opportunity to do something great, grow something great and inspire someone around you. Seize the moment!
How has the project enhanced teaching and learning within your school?
Where we learn matters! Every child deserves a safe, healthy, nurturing environment. This project embodies that mind-set for all. Our project has enhanced teaching and learning in multiple schools and countries. We have turn-keyed our technology, enthusiasm and can-do attitude around the globe! Some of the benchmarks we are most proud of include moving targeted attendance from 40% to 93% daily, 100% passing rates on State Tests and partnering towards over 2,200 local jobs! In other schools, we have helped reduce behavioural incidents and truancy by over 50%, school performance – as evidenced by test scores, school report cards, and school progress reports have improved dramatically. For the first time in a long time, we have attracted new, young teachers to a traditionally hard to staff school, bringing with them an excitement and commitment that is transforming the entire culture. I like to say that we grow vegetables but our vegetables grow students, school, community and opportunities. 35,000 pounds of vegetables later, my favourite crop is organically grown citizens, graduates, members of the middle class and a resilient community dedicated to eating their way to good health.
Share two major successes that resulted from the project.
Today, we have students focused on attending high schools/colleges and pursuing opportunities they never knew of or imagined prior to our programme. We have students working their way through college. We have students routinely bringing home bags of healthy fresh food to a community with limited means and access to them. On a daily basis, students are feeding themselves highly nutritious food that fuels them properly where they need it most – in school. Students know they can grow healthy fresh food all year long, right in school, aligned to academic content and subject areas. They know that actions can shape and guide their destinies. We celebrate daily, that together, we can all prosper! SI SE PUEDE!
Who was your favourite teacher? Why?
I stand on the shoulders of giants. I am a collective success – my parents, my teachers, my students, my staff, my colleagues, my immediate and extended family all deserve credit.
I am grateful to all. Those who supported creative thinking aligned to discipline and deliverables were very impactful. In graduate school, I had a mentor and advisor who really went above and beyond to challenge me, who taught me the difference between incompetence and non- compliance, and that good teaching could assuage and overcome both. I remain a grateful and active learner. I feel the best is yet to come and that excites me beyond words!
What impact did being a top ten finalist in the Global teacher Prize 2015 have on you and/or your profession?
WOW! This question leaves me as close to speechless as I will ever be! The sole reason I completed the application was that I believed that it would make me a better teacher/administrator and provide me with a better lens for personal and professional practice. That it was actually read and accepted was mind-blowing. I went to Dubai to complete a team, not compete for a Prize. To be held in esteem and honoured with so many great teacher heroes was phenomenal. My entire neighbourhood celebrated and the honour was our collective success. Teachers change lives. Behind every great success story, there is a teacher. My goal is to be that kind, caring, compassionate adult for as many children as possible. That said, let us be mindful of the teachers teaching under thatched roofs, those in conflicts zones with no access to black- boards and running water, much less Internet. We need to acknowledge those hero teachers risking their lives, walking down un-paved roads and through the jungle daily to teach and spread hope. They are true global heroes and equity warriors. In the States, the message that resonated is that greatness is everywhere, that a teacher and students from the poorest Congressional District in America, working in the projects could be recognized, speaks to the power of public education and that all teachers matter! Finally, to have schools around the world interested in replicating our work, learning about our technology, and sharing our best practices is the greatest compliment of all. Every child everywhere – regardless of zip code and skin colour deserves opportunity – Global Teacher Prize (and Mr Sunny Varkey) speak to and celebrate that promise; for that, I am and will remain forever grateful.
What is the best advice that you have received? how has it helped you?
The Golden Rules in life really have a HUGE multiplier effect! ‘Please’, ‘thank you’, ‘I’m sorry’, ‘thank you for correcting me’, all bring value to the table and help foster cooperation, coalition, collaboration and Get the Yes Solution. Remaining teachable and approachable, keeping it simple, celebrating often, building add value capacities and giving credit to others will get you far! Never give up. Embrace and build upon your failures; they can be your greatest lessons! Work to leave the world better than you found it! Remember that asking for permission is begging for denial, so get out there and do something great. CELEBRATE and DO! No time like the present!
What is one of your proudest achievements to date?
There are subtle, sublime and outrageous moments. I will try to highlight a few. I was recently dubbed The Pied Piper of Peas and Pied Piper of Green Schools. In that vein, I was referred to as part and parcel of the very fabric of the neighbourhood I serve. What could be more flattering and humbling? To be named Top Ten Finalist in Global Teacher Prize, as was meeting His Holiness, Pope Francis in The Vatican and meeting President Clinton are all memorable. Meeting Oprah left me stuttering and speechless. In December 2015, after months of planning and herculean efforts, we soft launched the National Health, Wellness and Learning Center to critical acclaim and positive review. January 2016 has been phenomenal. We were invited to present at the White House for State of STEM and featured in Diversity in STEAM Magazine. KHDA invited me to Dubai where I received a standing ovation at What Works. During that visit, a five-year-old student at GEMS Modern Academy presented me with a custom bowtie in front of several hundred cheering students. This literally brought me to tears. Closer to home, I am greeted daily by hundreds of adoring students who come early and stay late, literally walking me to and from work. Each day brings more joy and more hope.
To learn more about the project visit their Facebook Page: Green Bronx Machine and website http://greenbronxmachine.org/.
By Carolyn Lee
Carolyn is the editor of Teach UAE Magazine.