It was October 2004 and a fight was breaking out between a girl and boy at one of New York City’s most overpopulated, underfunded, and crime-plagued high schools. Teacher Stephen Ritz was just about to call for help when the boy reached under the classroom radiator and grabbed a cardboard box. As he lifted it, the box broke – spilling out dozens of bright yellow flowers with long green stems.
“The class gasped as if the boy had pulled a rabbit from a magician’s hat.“ Stephen describes in his autobiography, The Power of A Plant.” “Fists instantly stopped flying… The boys now clamored to give flowers to the girls. The girls wanted a stem or two to take home to their mothers.”
Stephen had totally forgotten about the box of bulbs he’d received weeks earlier. He’d stashed it under the radiator, never considering that the warm steam would cause the bulbs to bloom and the box to deteriorate.
The positive effect of the plants on the students moved Stephen deeply, he knew it was something he had to build upon. So the next day he took the students to their local park to plant the fully flowering bulbs. Students gardening in the middle of the Bronx and daffodils blooming in October attracted attention – even newspaper coverage. Media coverage is a novelty for many individuals but it was doubly meaningful for Stephen’s students, the majority of whom had endured great hardships in their young lives.
The success of the gardening day inspired Stephen to create a Green Teen team and, over time, flip his entire curriculum to integrate gardening as an entry point for all learning. The result? Near perfect attendance and graduation rates, dramatically increased passing rates on state exams, and behavioral problems reduced by half. Equally significant, Stephen introduced fresh produce into the daily diets of many children who previously lacked access.
But benefits did not end at the school doors. In the poorest congressional district in America, with the nation’s highest concentration of brick housing projects, Stephen has partnered placing students in over 2200 local jobs and replaced blocks of concrete with farms and gardens. His achievements have earned him recognition as one of NPR’s 50 greatest teachers and top ten ranking in the Global Teacher Prize. Today, Stephen partners with organizations from “Canada to Dubai and Colombia to Cairo” to bring the power of a plant to children.
It is with great honor and admiration that we recognize Stephen Ritz’s magnanimous contributions in the field of environmental literacy with our 2017 Global Presence Humanitarian Award.