Stephen Ritz calls himself an "insurgent educator," appropriate for the man who once brought a 22-foot snake into his classroom.
The janitor inadvertently let it out one day, and the school was closed for a week after it moved into the ceiling.
Ritz, a teacher in the South Bronx, has since taken another route — namely, encouraging student achievement, healthy living and sustainability by teaching at-risk kids how to grow their own food.
Ritz has gained national attention by working with his students to transform abandoned spaces in the Bronx borough of New York into thriving gardens. He helped found Green Bronx Machine, a nonprofit organization dedicated to "growing, re-using, resourcing and recycling our way into new and healthy ways of living."
His classroom efforts have produced more than 25,000 pounds of vegetables, dramatically increased school attendance and graduation rates, encouraged healthier eating habits and pushed students into careers they never dreamed of before, according to Ritz.
"We are really teaching kids about growing food, growing themselves and growing awareness," Ritz said Friday, talking by phone from the U.S. Green Building Council in Washington, D.C.
Ritz will give a free public talk from 7 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Ikenberry Commons Student Dining Residential Programs Building, 301 E. Gregory Drive, C, as part of Earth Week activities at the University of Illinois.
Ritz is not a farmer at heart. He didn't know anything about gardening before his foray into urban gardening.
How did he get his start? Ritz was dean at one of New York City's most troubled high schools, and "someone sent me a box of flower bulbs."
"I didn't know what they were. I thought they were onions. I hid them behind a radiator so the kids wouldn't use them as a weapon," he said.
But one day, a student pulled out the box, and the heat and moisture from the radiator had prompted them to sprout.
"We had hundreds of flowers blooming behind the radiator," he said.
He planted 25,000 bulbs with his students across the city to commemorate 9/11, which made him realize "we were able to grow something greater. We've been on a mission since," he said.
They started with small plots of land, building community gardens and school gardens.
Eventually, he moved into growing food indoors, using a new vertical technology called "tower farms," which don't require soil.
"We grow enough food in one classroom routinely to feed 450 people," he said.
Students learn skills they will need to become effective employees, such as collaboration and problem-solving, he said.
"Kids are so disconnected from food and where it comes from that when we teach them to grow it," they're changed forever, he said.
"I've lost 120 pounds. My kids have lost hundreds of pounds. My kids are thinking about the way they eat, the way they socialize. Vandalism is down, crime is down, graffiti is down," he said.
Ritz is working to replicate the program across the country: "If I can grow food in the South Bronx, why can't we do it elsewhere, in cities across America, and across the world?"
"Healthy kids perform better. Where we learn matters. Every child deserves a healthy, safe, nurturing environment, a place where they can learn and work toward a better future," he said.
The key is to "align that with proper nutrition, so we're feeding healthy minds and bodies."
Earth Week at the University of Illinois includes films, guest speakers, bicycle-repair clinics and workshops on green living. Here are a few highlights:
Earth Week Clothing Swap & Drive, noon to 4 p.m., University YMCA.
DIY Green Supplies Workshop*, 6-7 p.m., University YMCA, 1001 S. Wright St., C: Learn how to clean with environmentally friendly products.
Earth Hour, 8-9 p.m., campuswide: Switch off all lights and electronics.
Environmental Expo, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Illini Union Courtyard Cafe.
Movie on the Quad: "Bidder 70," 8-10 p.m.: One student's act of civil disobedience for "climate justice."
Bike Blending + Fixing, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., main Quad: Bring your bike for a quick tune-up, starting at $5.
Keynote speaker Stephen Ritz, teacher and activist from the Bronx, 7-9 p.m., Ikenberry Commons Student Dining Residential Programs Building, 301 E. Gregory Drive, C.
"Sustainable Campus," noon to 1 p.m., Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, 1 E. Hazelwood Drive, C: Ben McCall, associate director for campus sustainability, will discuss how the campus is meeting the targets for the 2015 Climate Action Plan.
Bike Face Friday Ride, 6 to 7 p.m., leave from Illini Grove: Join the group for a bike ride through town.
Prosperity Gardens Workday*, 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., Prosperity Gardens, North First Street, Champaign: A workday at Champaign's fast-growing urban farm.
* — Online RSVP required.