How Gardening Turned This Poor-Performing School In The Bronx Around

Attendance, grades, and test scores all went up—and students blossomed.

October 5, 2017
Stephen Ritz and his Bronx students.
Photograph courtesy of Jesse McElwain/Rodale Books

It’s not the garden you’d imagine. It sits four stories up in a refurbished library. The building it’s tucked away in is over 100-years-old, and located in New York City’s South Bronx neighborhood (one of the poorest, if not the poorest, congressional districts in the country). To say it’s in the heart of the concrete jungle would be a compliment—most blocks are without any grass, greenery or trees. But there in a classroom, amongst desks, tables, and school supplies, are towers of fresh and fragrant produce, all tended to and cared for by students. 

But perhaps what’s even more unimaginable is how this crop of produce has transformed Community School 55. Attendance has soared (going from 40 percent to 93 percent), and so have grades and test scores, while disciplinary issues have dropped by half. It’s not the little garden that could—it’s the little garden that can.


The credit goes to a teacher named Stephen Ritz, and fittingly, a plant. “My story is mainly one of tireless dedication to children,” Ritz says. “But all started with one big mistake.”

(Brag your love of gardening with the Organic Life 2018 Wall Calendar, featuring gorgeous photographs, cooking tips and recipes, plus how to eat more—and waste less—of what's in season.)

Sprouting into a teacher

At over six-feet tall and wiry as a weed, Ritz had thought he might be a pro basketball player. But in 1994, after hurting his knee, and hurting for a job, he decided to pursue teaching (his mom was a teacher, and he had gotten his teaching certificate). He hobbled into an interview in a knee brace and basketball shorts—and was immediately offered the position. It was the beginning of a career that has since spanned decades (and counting), and has pin-balled him around schools that at first appeared rotting and hopeless.

He’s taught in places caked in graffiti and marijuana smoke, where you had to pass through metal detectors to get into the building and a police van was permanently parked outside to shuttle students from classrooms to jail cells. Schools that were meant to hold 1,800 students were stuffed with nearly 4,000. But originally from the Bronx, Ritz wasn’t intimidated, he was inspired. And even though poverty, crime, and drugs were always on display, Ritz saw something else: promise.

Related: How Yoga And Meditation Are Transforming Underserved Schools

“There was an energy in these students, and I wanted to channel that into something—there is so much untapped potential in marginalized communities,” he says. “People should not have to leave their neighborhood to learn in a better one. And a zip code or the color of someone’s skin should not determine the quality of someone’s life.”


That was the seed of his idea, and it was about to bloom.

Seeing red—and then green

On an October day, two students got into a fight in Ritz’s class. One student reached under the radiator for what Ritz thought was a gun. Instead, out tumbled heaps of daffodils. The mood in the room lightened as boys grabbed them to give to girls, and other students nabbed a few to take home to their moms. “Someone had randomly sent me a box of bulbs and I stuffed them behind the radiator and forgot about them,” Ritz explains. “Those flowers ended up transforming the lives of my students, as it was then I realized that people get excited about nature.” 

Related: 8 Amazing Ways Nature Can Heal You

Ritz and his students planted the daffodils in the park, and things kept growing from there. Soon they had an edible wall of produce and enough bounty to host a farmer’s market for the community. Parents would drop by for sweet, drippy strawberries, plump, juicy tomatoes and fresh-picked jalapeños. It was a big deal for an area where you could easily find a place to buy liquor and cigarettes, but not fruit and vegetables.

Students began to excel academically and behavior improved (no disciplinary incidents earned students the right to help care for the plants or a reward of a smoothie from the freshly-picked fruit).

Such a big turnaround may sound as magical, and unlikely, as Jack and his magic beans, but it’s actually a lot simpler than that, Ritz says.


Related: 5 Surprising Ways Gardening Improves Your Health

Ritz discovered that food got people’s attention because, hey, you have to eat. And caring for the garden allowed the students to feel a part of something. “I’ve got kids that can discriminate between Thai basil and lemon basil,” Ritz remarks proudly. “They are all extremely proud of what they’ve created.”

These 10 herbs you can grow indoors are perfect for classroom gardens:

The garden is in session

But it’s about more than a tomato.

“A seed well-planted has yielded a crop of big proportions,” Ritz says. He has dubbed his school garden the National Health, Wellness and Learning Center. The Pope has praised it and it’s been visited by President Obama’s former White House chef, William Yosses. The crops don’t only help provide students and their families with good-for-you fare, the garden also distributes produce to cancer patients. And his students aren’t just excelling academically for as long as it takes to grow a pepper, they’re continuing on to college or landing good jobs.

And it’s not just the garden and students blossoming. Ritz has turned his idea into a nonprofit called the Green Bronx Machine, and his philosophy has been replicated from Canada to Dubai. He recently published a book “The Power of a Plant” and has been the recipient of countless awards.

And yet, there’s still more growing to do, he says.

The Power Of A Plant, by Stephen Ritz
Photograph courtesy of Rodale Books

Dig in

“I want to leave the world a better place than I found it,” he says. “And it’s possible for us all to do that.” He explains the bountiful benefits he’s experienced aren’t rooted exclusively in the South Bronx. In fact, the health and educational rewards of getting your children involved in the garden can be reaped by anyone.

Related: 3 Amazing Ways Gardening Is Good For Kids

“The younger the better,” Ritz says. “Children love planting, watering, and seeing things grow. And kids will eat anything and everything if they grow it themselves.” The key is to start with low-maintenance crops, he adds. Think: lettuces, radishes, carrots, beans and sprouts. And while you may be familiar with pestering your kids to eat their vegetables, you need to, as well. “Actions speak louder than words, and it’s important for parents to model pro-vegetable behavior, too,” he adds. (No yard? No problem—here are 10 fruits and vegetables you can grow in a tiny apartment.)

Your kids still not into vegging out?

“Food costs money,” Ritz says. “If you told your kids that they could plant a penny in the ground and in 60 days they’ll have a $5 bill, they would be planting pennies everywhere.”

Ritz decided not to pursue a pro basketball career. And yet, he’s been getting slam dunks ever since.