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Teens in the Bronx get lesson in green studies

By Alex DiPalma, CNN
  • A teacher in the Bronx has transformed his classroom into a green learning environment
  • Steve Ritz's students are learning how to grow food in an urban environment
  • Ritz says green skills will give his students an edge in the job market in the future

New York (CNN) -- In Steve Ritz's high school classroom, students don't have to look far for a snack.

"When kids are hungry in my class, they can get up and go eat off a wall," he said.

Ritz, an innovative high school teacher at Discovery High School in the South Bronx in New York, has transformed his classroom into a green learning environment; textbooks are stacked on desks while vegetation fills the shelves and covers the walls. Ritz and his students recently cooked 450 organic meals using vegetables that originated in the classroom.

Ritz's green classroom is especially unique in the South Bronx. Parts of the New York borough comprise the poorest Congressional district in the United States, which has been labeled a "food desert" due to the scarcity of fresh, nutritious food.

According to a recent survey conducted by the Food Research and Action Center, an anti-hunger group, more than 36 percent of residents in the South Bronx lack enough money for food.

Green teens in the Bronx

"No one would imagine that in the South Bronx you could actually grow carrots," said Victor Vavila, one of Ritz's students. "But that's the mindset that we have. That's the mindset most of the inner city has."

The South Bronx has been ranked the unhealthiest of New York's 62 counties. In a community rife with diabetes, heart disease and obesity, Ritz believes it is crucial for students to make healthy decisions. His methods seem to be working.

"I eat more vegetables now instead of just going to the pizza shop or the Chinese store," said Johnathan Collazo, one of Ritz's students. "Instead I'll make a home cooked meal with some salad and grilled chicken and then I'm good."

The benefits of Ritz's green classroom aren't just nutritional. Beyond learning what to eat, his students learn how to grow food in an urban environment using limited resources and renewable energy. His goal is to prepare his students to take advantage of the burgeoning green industry.

We're growing graduates, we're growing economies and we're growing a healthier environment.
--Steve Ritz

"When we talk about this whole new green economy, this represents the future of green jobs in your life," Ritz said during a recent class.

Students have learned what Ritz calls the "three tiers" of this green movement: use of cutting-edge science, maintenance and installation of resources and culinary customer service skills.

These skills, Ritz says, will allow his students to enter the job market with a huge advantage.

In April, 10 of Ritz's outstanding students received scholarships to help take their classroom knowledge to a new practical level, receiving training and certification to professionally install green roofs and walls.

"I really enjoy working with it," said Linette Maria, one of Ritz's students. "I'm hoping I can work more with it in the future and keep on making the world green."

Her experiences at Discovery High School will allow her to do just that. Ritz says his students use social, academic and biochemical engineering to find ways to take 210 plants and cultivate them in a 4-by-2-foot panel. These advanced engineering and design activities require teamwork along with skill.

"You're seeing kids, who maybe a year or two ago couldn't sit in a room together, actually now working side by side encouraging people," said Ritz.

Ritz's students have put their skills to the test. They worked together to build a community garden, growing vegetables from seeds that were cultivated in the classroom. While harvesting the year's last crop of peppers, carrots and zucchini, Ritz's students looked back on a successful season.

"A lot of people who started gardening hated it," said Vavila, equipped with gardening gloves. "They hated the idea, they hated getting messy, getting dirty. But after a while you actually enjoy it. It's something that just feels indescribable, amazing."

With all of the unique activities that Ritz's students are involved with, it's easy to forget that they are still high school science students. Ritz believes that his style of hands-on learning will produce college-bound graduates from a low-income community with many children in shelters and foster care.

"We have kids who are facing tremendous obstacles in life," Ritz said. "Many of them came in under-credited and over-age, and now are on line to graduate. This is their home away from home."

He hopes that his students will use their experiences to become environmental and social stewards for the next generation.

"We're not just growing vegetables, we're growing citizens," he said. "We're growing graduates, we're growing economies and we're growing a healthier environment."

Readers interested in Ritz's program can contact him via e-mail at