Education Dept. vetoes school for green jobs

The city Department of Education has rejected a proposal to create a high school based on the ideas of the founder of Sustainable South Bronx and devoted to training students for jobs that can improve the environment.

Majora Carter speaking at last year's Earth Day celebration in Mott Haven

Plans had called for the academy to be located in the South Bronx

By Prakirti Nangia
[email protected]

The city Department of Education has rejected a proposal to create a high school based on the ideas of the founder of Sustainable South Bronx and devoted to training students for jobs that can improve the environment.

The Majora Carter Achievement Academy was the brainchild of its namesake, the former executive director of the environmental justice organization. More than two years in the making, the proposal was developed by Stephen Ritz, an award-winning teacher and coordinator of student affairs at the Millennium Art Academy in the East Bronx.

It had won letters of support from Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion, Jr., Baruch College, Mothers on the Move, the Bronx River Alliance and even former President Bill Clinton, among others, but in December, the education department dropped it from the list of 100 applicants whose ideas for new schools it was considering.

Plans called for the academy to be located in the South Bronx and be open to all New York City students. Ritz said sites in and near Hunts Point were among those under consideration.

Curriculum choices for students included classes in installing green roofs, restoring wetlands and identifying plants, as well as classes emphasizing hazardous waste cleanup, auto shop safety and engine performance. Students would graduate with training certificates in the specialty of their choice.

The South Bronx would serve as a real-life classroom, according to the proposal. Majora Carter Academy students would be paired with community organizations to provide both work experience and engagement with urban and environmental issues.

The students were to have access to Sustainable South Bronx’s FabLab, the facility housed next door to Hunts Point Riverside Park designed by the Massachusetts Institute of Techonology to enable users to translate digital designs into physical reality.

They were also to be able to take part in Pratt Institute’s Design Incubator for Sustainable Innovation, a program that provides support and guidance to designers, artists and architects.

Ritz said Fortune 100 and 500 publishing and technology companies had pledged to provide internships and jobs for graduates.

Melody Meyer, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said the Majora Carter Achievement Academy “will not open in September because it failed to meet our criteria,” which included “the academic merits of the proposal, and the ability of the people in the proposing team to lead a school that will successfully educate students.”

“The entire MCAA team is sad that, at this time, this great city is not interested in our ability to turn people previously thought of as ‘problems’ into heroes of green infrastructure,” Carter said in a statement.

Ritz said he was “appalled” at the city’s decision.

The education department invited about three-quarters of applicants to interviews about their proposals. The Majora Carter Achievement Academy was one of the few that was not, said Ritz.

He speculated that budget concerns, lack of space, or simply a “threatening” grassroots movement may have informed the city’s decision.

“The fact that we named it after Majora, while important to us, probably was a problem for DOE. We were told off the record that a different more palatable name would have gotten us in the door!” he said in an email.

“Sadly DOE and city politics have always had more to do with what happens than the best interests of children.”

Carter and Sustainable South Bronx have frequently clashed with the city over its decisions to build unwelcome facilities in poor neighborhoods. The organization was born from a battle to keep a waste transfer station out of Hunts Point; more recently Sustainable South Bronx has been outspoken in its opposition to building a jail.

But the city and the organization have also cooperated on such projects as the South Bronx Greenway, an idea first advanced by Carter.

Ritz said his team abandoned a similar proposal in its early stages two years ago because the Department of Education wanted the school to be built in Brooklyn. He and Carter insisted on the Bronx.

Damian Griffin, the education director at the Bronx River Alliance, said students in the South Bronx feel the “schools aren’t there for them. They are just some place to keep them.”

In its recommendation letter to Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, the Bronx River Alliance supported the Majora Carter Achievement Academy because it felt there was a great need for “providing academic venues for those who do not fit into the traditional academic confines of the present.”

Kellie Terry-Sepulveda, executive managing director of The Point CDC, praised the grassroots nature of the school, saying, “Oftentimes we have millions of schools coming into our neighborhood and they’re not from our neighborhood. I’m all for community-based solutions.”
The proposal was in fact “an outgrowth of many years of community organizing,” said Ritz.

The idea for the school emerged from a belief that “privilege or zip code should not entitle you to a better education or limit your access,” Ritz said. It was all about “finding a sustainable opportunity indigenous to the community.”

Team MCAA is not yet giving up, said Ritz. It plans to reapply to the department next year and meanwhile is considering proposals from other South-Bronx based high schools that have invited the Academy to start a program on their campuses.

“I firmly believe that not now does not mean not ever,” said Ritz.