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A South Bronx Teacher Is in the Running to Win $1 Million Prize

By Eddie Small | February 13, 2015 8:28am
 Stephen Ritz poses with his student Hannah Asencio in the health and wellness center he is working to build at P.S. 55.
Stephen Ritz poses with his student Hannah Asencio in the health and wellness center he is working to build at P.S. 55.
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DNAinfo/Eddie Small

CLAREMONT — A South Bronx teacher who founded a nonprofit with his students that has led to more than 100 community gardens at schools throughout New York City and helped combat health issues in the borough will fly to Dubai next month as one of 10 finalists for a $1 million teaching prize.

Stephen Ritz, who teaches science, math and literacy for kindergartners through fifth-graders at P.S. 55 on Saint Paul's Place, is a finalist for the Global Teacher Prize, which launched in March of 2014 and seeks to increase the prestige of teachers and award educators who are role models for the profession. It is often referred to as the "Nobel Prize for Teachers."

"It’s humbling, it’s flattering and it just speaks to the fact that this is our moment," Ritz said. "I’m blessed to work with some of the most inspirational teachers in the world. I don’t feel it’s about me. I feel it’s about us."

Ritz is well known for his Green Bronx Machine, a nonprofit he and his students started, which has installed gardens at schools throughout the city and focuses on green-jobs training and urban farming, aligning with his belief that learning how to garden is a helpful skill for kids to have.

"We believe that plant-based education is at the heart of stellar academic success, that if kids learn to grow food, plant food and eat healthy food, they can grow themselves," he said.

He described teaching students through having them work in the garden at P.S. 55 as an educational, fun and tasty way for them to learn.

"They keep data, they keep records, and then they get to eat it," he said. "How cool is that?"

Ritz is now working to build a health and wellness center in P.S. 55's old library that will include an indoor garden and that he hopes will be a national model. If he wins the Global Teacher Prize, he said all of the money will go toward developing the center and replicating it at other schools.

"I see this as seed money," he said. "I don’t see this as prize money."

There are no restrictions on how the winning educator has to spend the $1 million, but he or she must remain a classroom teacher for at least five years as a condition of receiving the award.

Luis Torres, principal at P.S. 55, stressed that Ritz was not the type of person who would look to use the Global Teacher Prize to increase his own wealth or celebrity. He characterized him as a passionate teacher who always puts his students first and who is helping to change the culture of the school.

"He's not paid for half the stuff he does," Torres said, "and everything he does is for the children."

Hannah Asencio, a 10-year-old fifth-grader at P.S. 55, described Ritz as a nice, approachable teacher with a great sense of humor.

"Whenever I have problems, I can always come to him and talk to him," she said. "He writes a lot of songs about plants. I think it's really funny."

More than 5,000 people were nominated for the award, and Ritz will be competing for the top prize with nine other finalists from countries including Afghanistan, Haiti, Kenya and Malaysia.

The prize is administered by the Varkey Foundation, the philanthropic branch of the teaching company GEMS Education, and the winner is selected by a group of people ranging from activist Geoffrey Canada to actor Kevin Spacey.

The nomination already took Ritz to Vatican City last week, where he participated in a discussion about how to connect schools around the world with the Scholas Occurrentes, an educational organization launched by Pope Francis.

"In the South Bronx, this is our story from hope to the Pope," he said. "If we can change outcomes and attitudes in The Bronx, we can change them anywhere."