Who says you can’t fight City Hall?
Not the students in Jose Ortiz’s class at the Bushwick Academy of Urban Planning, who turned a class project into a campaign to change the way New York rates the cleanliness of city streets.
The project began early in the school year, when Ortiz (MS, ’13), a social studies and economics teacher, connected his 12th graders with Generation Citizen, a national civics education program, and challenged them to think about problems in their Brooklyn neighborhood.
After surveying residents, the class quickly zeroed in on the cleanliness of the streets, which they believed was not getting the same attention as it was in other parts of the city.
“We found that people were unhappy and feeling discouraged by the state of the neighborhood,” said student Maritza Veron. “Why should some areas be cleaner than ours? They felt no one was paying attention.”
The students had found a cause, but they still needed to build a case.
So they researched how the city assesses street cleanliness, and they discovered that the scoring system for determining if a street or sidewalk is clean hasn’t changed since the mid-1970s, and the city uses black and white photos from that era for reference.
“We couldn’t believe it,” said student Kimberly Goris. “Technology has advanced so much and to know that the city was using old pictures for something so important was surprising.”
They took pictures of littered streets in their neighborhood and filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get the raw scores the city uses to rate cleanliness. In some cases, the streets of Bushwick are rated as clean, or cleaner, than those in more affluent neighborhoods like Greenwich Village and SoHo.
In fact, during 2014, for example, there were months – including April 2015, the most recent month available — in which a higher percentage of the streets in the community board that includes Bushwick were considered “acceptably clean” than those in the community board that covers SoHo.
The city’s scoring system ranks streets and sidewalks on a scale of 1 to 3, with 1 being the cleanest. Anything below 1.5 is considered “acceptably clean” by the city. The rankings are used to help the city’s Department of Sanitation determine street-cleaning priorities. (While the city posts online the percentage of “acceptably clean” streets in each community board, it doesn’t post the raw scores for individual neighborhoods).
Empowered by their research and encouraged by Ortiz, the class wrote letters and emailed city officials about their concerns. Both City Councilman Antonio Reynoso, who represents Bushwick and chairs the council’s Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste, and Brooklyn Deputy Borough President Diana Reyna visited the class to hear the students present their case.
“It was important to teach the students that an email or a letter goes a long way if you know the right person to contact,” Ortiz said.
For Goris, who will be attending SUNY Plattsburgh, the project taught her the power – and responsibility – of advocacy. “Our voices can be heard,” she said, “but we need to speak up.”
Veron, who begins her first year at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the fall, said: “Kids our age can make a difference.” So can teachers like Ortiz.
“He’s a role model who cares about students’ work in school and their lives outside the classroom,” she said.
Indeed, besides his teaching duties, Ortiz headed the prom committee and ran the school’s yearbook and graduation activities this year.
He credits two of his education professors at Hofstra, Dr. Bruce Torff and Dr. Alan Singer, with instilling the belief that teaching is a calling.
We become teachers for the children,” Ortiz said, “and for the betterment of society.”