A High School for Green Teens

Steve Ritz's goal is to establish an open enrollment public school in the Bronx that would train students in emerging fields such as green roofing, urban agriculture, and natural resource management.
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With unemployment in the dismal double digits, there's a lot of chanting and ranting about jobs right now. China's cleaning our clock when it comes to clean tech, even as its growth continues to rely on dirty ol' coal. And so does ours, for that matter. The difference is that China's forging ahead with alternative energy while we bury our heads in the tar sands.

Our national unemployment rate seems stuck at 10 percent, and in some urban areas, it's risen above 15 percent, according to CNN. Creating more jobs is clearly job number one. But what color will those jobs be? A generation or so ago, jobs came in just two basic colors: blue collar and white. Now, we've got one black-collared Jobs, trotting out another supposedly game-changing gadget in his trademark mock turtleneck (color Pee Wee Herman among the unimpressed).

The real game changer, though, is the thousands of green jobs we could be creating, if only we'd reallocate our deficit-depleted resources. And the Steve showing us how to do this is named Ritz, not Jobs.

Steve Ritz is a trail-blazing teacher with an impressive track record of achievement working with students in one of the most challenging environments in New York City, the South Bronx--that eternally dumped-on borough whose name is synonymous with urban blight.

Ritz has figured out how to grow good food, good jobs and good citizens by tapping into one of our greatest wasted resources--urban youth. And he's doing it in Hunts Point, a quintessential "food desert" that, ironically, just happens to also be one of the world's largest food distribution centers; 2.7 billion pounds of fresh produce from 49 states and 55 foreign countries passes through Hunts Point's New York City Terminal Market annually on its way to more affluent neighborhoods.

Sadly, those endless truckloads of fresh fruits and vegetables don't do the locals much good. In fact, all the fumes from that commerce contribute to the South Bronx's extraordinarily high rate of respiratory illness, with a death rate from asthma that's about three times the national average.

Hunts Point is also part of the poorest congressional district in the country, with over half the population living below the poverty line. The unemployment rate is at a whopping 28 percent. And the neighborhood's 41st police precinct consistently records the highest violent crime rate per capita in New York City.

Undaunted by these grim statistics, Ritz took classes with a 40 percent attendance rate and brought them up to 93 percent. More remarkably still, his students have consistently achieved 100% passing grades on the state Regents exams in math and science.

Ritz's current goal is to establish the Hunts Point High School for Sustainable Community Initiatives, an open enrollment NYC public school that would train the local youth in emerging fields such as green roofing, urban agriculture, natural resource management, brown field remediation--in short, all the 21st century post-petroleum vocations in which our labor force needs to be skilled.

At his current position teaching at the Discovery High School in the Bronx, Ritz just oversaw the installation of a living, edible green wall in partnership with a for-profit enterprise called Green Living Technologies, a pioneering developer of cutting edge urban agricultural systems.

Green Living Technologies is sponsoring a team of Ritz's students, bringing them to Boston later this month "to be the first high students in America to be trained and certified as green wall and green roof installers," Ritz told me, adding that this is "proof that we are poised, ready, willing and able to export our talent and diversity nationally as we transform the landscape and mindset of the South Bronx."

Ritz believes that kids "shouldn't have to leave their neighborhood to live, learn and earn in a better one." His Hunts Point High School for Sustainable Community Initiatives proposal "addresses those facts in earnest; providing the skill set and wherewithal to turn Hunts Point into a preeminent educational and vocational destination that can be replicated nationally."

Sounds awesome, right? Tell it to the Department of Education, which rejected the proposal in its original incarnation back in 2008 when it was conceived as the Majora Carter Achievement Academy, named for the founder of the environmental justice non-profit Sustainable South Bronx.

Undeterred, Ritz renamed the proposed school and retooled it to be a "career and technical education" school with an emphasis on training in green technologies. He resubmitted it, only to have the Department of Education reject it again last November.

This past Monday, President Obama participated in a YouTube forum in which he took questions submitted by citizens in a kind of virtual, interactive fireside chat. One questioner asked:

President Obama, record numbers of young people elected you in support of a clean energy future. If money is tight, why do you propose wasting billions in expensive nuclear, dirty coal, and offshore drilling? We need to ramp up efficiency, wind and solar, that are all economically sustainable and create clean and safe jobs for our generation.

The President responded that he believes green jobs will be "the driver of our economy over the long term."

And yet, his support for 'clean coal,' offshore drilling, and other environmentally damaging sources of energy only creates more of what you might call "brown jobs." I'm not trying to coin a cute euphemism for disagreeable chores like emptying bedpans, cleaning toilets, diaper-changing or dog-walking. By "brown," I mean jobs that won't sustain our economy in the long run, because they're based on outdated notions about what our nation needs now.

Steve Ritz has demonstrated the potential of green jobs to revitalize a community and give young people a viable, rewarding career path. The Hunts Point Express published an editorial recently calling on the Department of Education to give the green light to Ritz's proposal, lauding it as a "visionary yet practical way to meet critical neighborhood needs."

And Bronx Community Board 2 just voted unanimously, thirty to zero, to pass Ritz's proposal.

If you'd like to help build momentum for Ritz's innovative initiative, please consider taking the time to post a comment in response to the Hunts Point Express editorial, or contactNYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. to express your support. And if you'd like to learn more about the HPHS proposal, contact Ritz directly at sritz@schools.nyc.gov.

Part of his strategy with the HPHA is to "turn garbage and waste into money." Wouldn't that be more cost effective, in the long run, than throwing good money after bad by clinging to outdated technologies?

Originally published on The Green Fork

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