Luis E Torres and Steven Ritz- The Heroes of PS 55
By Dr Mark Naison,
When the NYC Department of Education put a Success Academy elementary school on the 4rh Floor of PS 55, an elementary school located in the middle of the poorest and most decayed public housing complex in the Bronx, the Claremont Houses, they probably thought they were dooming the public school in the building. Their expectation was that the charter school would siphon off enough parents that the public school's enrollment would shrink to the point that the charter school would take over more and more floors and eventually get the whole building
What they didn't count on was the brilliance, creativity and tireless determination of the PS 55 principal, Bronx born and raised Luis Torres. Under his guidance, not only has the public school in PS 55 blossomed, it has become a center of educational creativity which people from all over the world come to visit!
How did Luis Torres do this? It was through a combination of old school administrative skills-bonding with teachers, students, and parents- and the kind of new school educational entrepreneurship that is needed in today's hostile educational climate. Not only did Principal Torres fund raise tirelessly with local business like the New York Yankees to bring in funds the school needed for better technology and equipment, he was determined to give his children everything schools in wealthy areas have plus programs catering to the special needs of youth in the Claremont neighborhood.
And here, in addition to bringing in instructors to organize dance teams, basketball teams and a tennis program, he decided to create a home with another resident Bronx genius viewed with skepticism by the NYC DOE, Steven Ritz, the founder of the great science and urban agriculture program, the Green Bronx Machine. Ritz, pushed out of a Bronx high school where he began his remarkable program, was not only given a huge lab on the third floor of PS 55, he was given a large area on the school grounds for an outdoor space to grow vegetables. What Ritz was able to do in those spaces was nothing short of miraculous. Not only did he grow enough vegetables and greens- both indoors and outdoors- to help feed the more than 500 families who attended the school, he created a hands on science curriculum based on his gardens which energized teachers, inspired students, and uplifted the morale of everyone in the building
If you go visit PS 55, as I have done with my students, you will see an oasis of energy, health, and creative activity in the midst of one of the poorest communities in NYC's poorest borough. Vegetables growing out doors and indoors, a full service medical clinic, a schoolyard resurfaced for softball, soccer, and tennis, special programs for immigrant students, and an atmosphere filled with hope.
Luis Torres has created a school that is a gift to the children, parents and people of New York City. But let us not forget that it was once a school designated for failure.
We need more principals to follow Luis Torres example and for the DOE to transform public schools, not charter schools, into showcases for educational innovation
Dr Mark Naison
Professor of African American Studies and History
Founder and Director, Bronx African American History Project
Dealy Hall Room 640
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