Change for the Greener for a Few Bronx Sixth-Graders

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The Highbridge Green School in the neighborhood north of Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. (Photo: Hilary Brueck/ NY City Lens)

At Jose Gonzalez’s house, an early riser is antsy to go to school.

“I’ve never seen my child waking up so early,” Gonzalez said. “At 6:20, he’s sitting on the chair, waiting for me to take him to school.”

Never mind that the 11-year-old doesn’t have to leave the house for another hour and a half.  Jose’s son, Allan, is one of 145 sixth-grade students enrolled at Highbridge Green School, the neighborhood’s only public middle school, which opened in September. And he can’t wait to start another 10-hour school day.

For years, the southwest Bronx neighborhood has outsourced its middle schoolers to classrooms outside the hilly enclave rising up to the west of the Grand Concourse. After eight years of petitions to the Department of Education for a school of their own, this year a few local parents got the chance to send their kids to nearby Highbridge, the city’s first LEED-certified green school.

But the sixth-graders chosen for the school are just a fraction of the over 700 neighborhood kids who signed up to enroll in the school. One in seven odds. Highbridge students won the lottery, quite literally.

Landing a seat in Highbridge means brand new tech-friendly classrooms, three meals a day and an extended-day program that all the students joined. Soon they’ll plant a rooftop vegetable garden.

“They’re always talking about the garden,”Allan Gonzalez said of his classmates. “They want to see how it looks.”

But the eager planters are a minority of the neighborhood’s middle schoolers. For the hundreds of children that didn’t get in and are left commuting to other areas of the borough for middle school, each day involves some combination of buses, trains and ups and downs on steep grade hills. The journey can take over an hour one way.

Gonzales told the story of one mother whose child didn’t get into the green school. She rides with her daughter every day on the bus to and from school to make sure she arrives safely.

Stacy, another sixth-grader at the new Highbridge Green School said her favorite subjects are reading and writing. (Hilary Brueck/ NY City Lens)

Stacy, another sixth-grader at the new Highbridge Green School said her favorite subjects are reading and writing. (Hilary Brueck/ NY City Lens)

“It’s changing her whole life,” Gonzales said. “I feel really, really sad for those parents who didn’t make it.”

The green school will sprout a grade each year their classes advance; next year filling the seventh-grade hallway, and eighth in 2015. At capacity, the middle school will house 389 of the neighborhood kids. But to many in the community, it still feels like it can only accommodate a fraction of the students that want to enroll.

“We were expecting to get a smaller school than we asked for,” Chauncy Young, a community organizer at Highbridge Community Life Center said, explaining that the group originally asked for a school that would house a few thousand kids. “We didn’t expect it to be quite so small.”

On a recent afternoon, a sixth-grade class lined up for dinner and passed the front office. Tennis shoes scuffing on the linoleum, the students shuffled by wordlessly in matching green polos and black pants. Some grinned, others hunched forward clutching their backpack straps tightly. All obeying orders to be at a “level zero,” meaning: no talking.

Principal Kyle Brilliante takes a personal approach to these students peering into his office, handing a cookie to a new student at school for the first time, calling a kid wandering into the office by name.

How well the school performs will depend, of course, on more than free cookies. Just three of the 21 other middle schools in the 9th district where the green school is located received “A” grades for the 2011-12 school year.

As for Allan, he was looking forward to last Friday, when the winners of the September “house games” were announced: that was when the best-behaving classes played games and enjoyed free time. Jose’s “talkative” class didn’t make the cut that round though. For him, that would be the real lottery win.

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