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Mentors key to getting kids to school in the Bronx

One in three kids miss too much school in the South Bronx, and the rate climbs to one in two, as students reach their senior year, according to the New York City Department of Education. A new mentorship program aims to reduce chronic absenteeism by pairing caring adults, who check-in daily, with absent students.

The newly launched pilot project, initiated by Children’s Aid and South Bronx Rising Together in Morrisania, began in September.

The program recruits and trains success mentors as cheerleaders, advocates and motivators, who encourage their mentees to attend school. Each chronically absent student connects with the mentor. Along with meeting and greeting every morning, mentors reach out and engage the mentee’s family and call home immediately if the student misses school. They also meet with students one-on-one, or in small groups on a regular basis to track mentee’s attendance and improvements.

“They are not quite like mentors,” said Kevin, a senior year high-school student as a mentee in the program. “They are friends that you say ‘hi’ to every morning. It becomes our daily routine.”

Chronic Absence Data in CD3 | Source: NYC Department of Education

 

Students are considered chronically absent if they miss at least 10% of school days—three days a month—for any reason. Citywide, the chronic absence rate is  25%, compared to 40% in the South Bronx.

“It adds up pretty quickly,” said Wenimo Okoya, director of Healthy and Ready to Learn at Children’s Health Fund. “Parents and teachers may not really think about the fact that a child is just missing several days of school and they really are, at the end of the year, chronically absent,” Okoya said.

 

Source: CommunitySchoolsNYC

Poverty is the driving factor behind poor attendance. The South Bronx is the poorest congressional district in the country. More than 80% of children are born into poverty, according to Abe Fernández, senior advisor of the South Bronx Rising Together. The community-wide, non-profit organization works with a network of neighborhood residents and program providers to build pathways of success for children and youth.

Children living in poverty are three times more likely to be chronically absent—and face the most harm because their community lacks the resources to make up for the lost learning in school.

Housing instability also leads to absenteeism. Students in homeless shelters are not only struggling with maintaining a place to sleep but also attending school. During elementary school, students who were homeless lived in at least two housing settings, transferred schools mid-year twice, and missed an average 88 days of school. This group of students had twice the risk of being suspended or held back a grade, and half the proficiency on their 5th-grade Math and English Language Arts assessments, according to The 2017 Atlas of Student Homelessness in New York City.

The first obstacle for homeless students in Morrisania is often simply being able to get to school because the shelters are too far away from children’s original schools. “Spending two hours on the way to school is apparently not practical,” said Fernández.

The success mentor model is much more integrated into the school environment according to Okoya. Mentors use attendance data as the primary factor to identify participants, collect and analyze data on a daily basis, and actively seek for school and family engagement.

“It requires mentors with deeper understandings of each student,” said Okoya. “Not just once a month or once a week, Success Mentors connect to mentees a minimum of 3 times a week, ideally, daily.”

Student attendance is significant from a continuous improvement point of view—it is one of the few data points that can be viewed daily, allowing individuals to see improvements as a regular behavior, according to Fernández.

“You try something new every day, what happened? Did it get better? Did it get worse? What did we learn from it? That’s a whole ongoing process,” he said.

By the end of 2020, Children’s Aid and South Bronx Rising Together want to reduce chronic absenteeism in Morrisania and Melrose from 40%—approximately 9,975 students—to 20%.

“The biggest challenge is bias. It’s just getting folks to see that this is a real thing and it’s a winnable thing,” said Jorge Blau, Program Director at Children’s Aid Society.

“When you are an adult, you show up to work. When you are a child, you should show up to school. This is a checkbox, the first step to success,” he said.

 

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Education, Featured, Morrisania, Southern Bronx0 Comments

No “Big Apple” in the Bronx

Every Wednesday, the McKinley Square in central Morrisania is busy and crowded — even on gloomy days. The small food market in the square is filled with the smell of seasonal spinach, peaches, cucumbers and carrots. More than 100 people living in the South Bronx go to the weekly market to buy fresh produce because they can’t find affordable, quality fruits and vegetables elsewhere.

“It’s die-hard to find healthy food and fresh vegetables here,” said Carmen Camacho, 38, a Bronx native and a full-time stay home mother.

Youthmarket in the McKinley Square | Credit: Leafy Xiaoye Yan

“Local supermarkets don’t have enough fruit and vegetable categories, they are not fresh, and not to mention they are also expensive,” she said.

The Morrisania area located in the South Bronx has long been known as a “food desert” for its lack of fresh produce. Instead, delis selling high-fat and high-sugar foods are far more common. Walking down East 169th Street, that runs through the center of Morrisania, one is surrounded on both sides by fast food restaurants such as Jimmy’s On The Go, Domino’s Pizza and Kennedy Fried Chicken. Up ahead, on Third Avenue is the 24-hour King Deli, selling burgers and sodas around the clock, while down at the McKinley Square is the Euro Piazza Restaurant. Every store has tempting posters with fast food on them, attracting passersby.

Deli and Restaurant in Morrisania |  Credit: Leafy Xiaoye Yan

Bronx locals can easily find food here — but it’s more difficult for those who want to eat healthily.

“I have to wait until every Wednesday the Youthmarket come here to get some fruits and vegetables,” said Camacho.

The Youthmarket is run by GrowNYC’s Learn It Grow It Eat It program, which is aimed at improving the health of young people through nutrition education and improved food access in their schools and community. Founded in 2008, the Youthmarket in Morrisania is one of the longest-running Youthmarkets, now in its tenth year.

Youthmarket in the McKinley Square | Credit: Leafy Xiaoye Yan

Adults in Morrisania and Crotona are more likely to consume sugary drinks and are less likely to eat fruits and vegetables than adults citywide, according to the Bronx Community District 3 Health Profile. For example, 80% of residents here eat at least one serving of fruits or vegetables per day, compared to 95% in the best performing community.

Fruit and vegetable consumption is a complicated issue affected by price and availability, particularly among low-income adults. Beginning in 2005, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene used the social-ecological model to develop a multifaceted effort to increase fruit and vegetable access citywide, with an emphasis in low-income neighborhoods such as the South Bronx.

As of July 2015, 670 stores have agreed to promote healthier items as part of Shop Healthy.  More than 300 of those stores have also agreed to increase access to healthier foods, according to the 2015 Food Metrics Report released by the New York City Mayor’s Office.

Fruits and Vegetables in a Bronx Supermarket | Credit: Leafy Xiaoye Yan

However, some Morrisania locals said they didn’t see substantive improvements in their neighborhood.

“Once a week is definitely not enough. It’s still too hard to get fresh produce here,” said Andy Foxe, 55, the owner of a local Barbershop. It took Foxe time even to think of other places he can buy vegetables or fruits besides the weekly Youthmarket.

More than just an inconvenience, the scarcity of healthy food can also lead to more health issues in the neighborhood. At 35%, the rate of obesity in Morrisania and Crotona is the highest in the city and more than four times the rate in Stuyvesant Town and Turtle Bay. Two-thirds of adults in the South Bronx are overweight, compared with one-half citywide. The diabetes rate in Morrisania and Crotona is 16%, which ranks the third highest among all New York City Districts, according to the latest Government Health Report.

“Obesity is a complex thing,” said Dr. Sharon Wardlaw at the New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center, “but limited access to healthy food could be a key factor leading to higher rates of obesity and diabetes in the Bronx.”

Limited access to healthy food means people in low-income communities suffer more from diet-related diseases like obesity and diabetes than those in higher-income neighborhoods with easy access to healthy food, particularly fresh fruits and vegetables, according to the Food Trust

Insufficient supply is not the only factor led to the scarcity of vegetables and fruits. Lorianne Santana, 18, a college student born and raised in Morrisania, believes that lack of consumer demand also plays an important role in the unhealthy diet.

“You can’t blame the store owners,” she said. “Most people only ask for fast-food because it is cheap and easy to buy, so that’s what all the delis and restaurants are going to sell.”

No demand, no supply. It’s a vicious cycle in Morrisania.

“The Bronx is in transition,” said Nicole Persaud, the senior attorney at New York Department of Agriculture and Markets. “With more programs ongoing, we aim to increase the access to fresh produce and improve the quality of life for Bronx residents.”

Most of the customers visiting the food market are familiar faces who live nearby and come every time, according to David Saphire, 56, one of the organizers of the Youthmarket.

“It helps with the food problem,” said Saphire, “but only in a very limited way since we are just one small market.”

David Saphire in the Youthmarket | Credit: Leafy Xiaoye Yan

Posted in Community Resources, Featured, Food, Health, Morrisania, The Bronx Beat0 Comments

CPC approves animal haven/City Planning, as expected, supports mayor’s shelter plan

“Supporters of the mayor’s proposal for an animal shelter across from Co-op City got a boost from the City Planning Commission. The proposal to build the borough’s first full-service animal shelter in decades got a chilly reception from the Co-op City community when it was announced, but the CPC saw merit in the proposal for 2050 Bartow Avenue, citing the need for animal related services.”

Check out at: BRONX Times

Posted in Newswire0 Comments

Saving Stray Cats in Morrisania

Edith Georgia began her day at 6 a.m. on August morning by preparing food for the stray cats lurking on the street corners in her Morrisania neighborhood. Georgia, a 65-year-old relative newcomer to the Bronx, arranged everything in her foldable cart: bottled clean water, paper plates, baking soda, vitamins for kittens, and stacked up cans of “Friskies” cat food.

 

 

Georgia, a former waitress working in North Harlem, has been following this routine for four years since she moved to South Bronx. Georgia started one day when she found a shorthair cat starving and meowing up at her when she walked down to her apartment at 9 p.m. after work. Georgia left out cat food, which later attracted more of his companions. She never thought this would become her responsibility, but every time Georgia saw cats out there, she “just can’t leave them alone.”

An overpopulation of feral cats have been a long-term headache in the Bronx. The issues surrounding it include insufficient neutering procedures, the city’s highest animal abandon rate, a lack of shelters and sanitation problems — problems that citywide animal enthusiasts and City Council Committee of Health have been pressuring the City to address for more than six years.

“Providing humane treatment to stray animals in New York City requires having the most modern facilities,” said City Council Member Mark Levine, who chairs the committee on health. “Until now, we as a city have failed to meet that standard in the Bronx.”

Meanwhile, Georgia and a handful of other Bronx residents are left caring for a growing population of homeless animals. Right now, she counts 25 feral cats under her protection. Twice a day, seven days a week, Georgia comes out on Fulton Avenue to provide them food and shelter built from plastic, waterproof sheets.

Georgia feeding her homeless felines in Unity Park

“There’re way too many cats here in the Bronx,” Georgia said as a gray cat named “Smokey” brushed by her legs. “Every time I turned around, it’s a new face.”

Georgia’s last stop in her everyday routine is the Reverend Lena Irons Unity Park located at East 167th Street. By the time she dragged her trolley to this park, Georgia’s fuschia hair band and leggings were soaked with sweat in the hot summer days.

When she stepped into the park, six cats suddenly jumped out from the bushes and behind the wire meshes surrounding the park. According to Georgia, there were only two of them when she first came here one year ago.

“This is a big family. Tabby is the mother. They breed so fast,” she said.

A large group of unneutered feral cats in Morrisania led to their booming population. According to the New York City Vital Signs study conducted in 2015, cats in the Bronx were least likely (60 percent) to be neutered, compared with 93 percent in Manhattan.

To solve this problem, the city adopted the Trap-Neuter-Return program that traps, neuters, and returns stray cats to outdoor locations in the city in order to humanely reduce the free-roaming cat population.

However, the Bronx has the smallest number of Trap-Neuter-Return locations despite its greatest need. None of the Bronx locations listed in the Health Department page has a physical space and there are only two feral-friendly veterinary clinics in the Bronx compared to an average of eight in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

“We also work with over 8,000 certified Trap-Neuter-Return caregivers,” said Kathleen O’Malley, Director of Education for the Feral Cat Initiative. “Providing more free workshops and training in the Bronx for cat advocates can help to solve the lack of animal care location problem.”

Feral cats in the Bronx

More and more cats on the street further increased the animal abandon rate. The largest number of cats being abandoned or surrendered to Animal Care Centers came from the South Bronx according to the Spay and Neuter Practices Survey.

In the year 2012 and 2013, the South Bronx had 3,958 abandoned cats, which means five domestic cats become feral per day.

According to Georgia, people abandoned their pets because they believed “maybe just one more cat on the street won’t be too much of a problem since there are already plenty of them.”

Georgia is not the only local resident taking care of the stray cats. Plastic bins filled with fresh or dried-out, rotten cat food are not hard to find in the Morrisania area. Animal advocates built their own “cat colonies” since the city has never build full-service animal shelters or adoption centers in the Bronx.

It’s been three years since the Health Department announced the new efforts to improve shelter animal care in the Bronx, including doubling the fleet of mobile adoption vans. However, Georgia said she didn’t notice any improvements in her neighborhood.

“Most of the money for the cat food came from my own pocket,” she said.

At this moment, Georgia has several donors, most of them are also Bronx residents who got to know her on the streets.

According to the mayor’s most recent statement from late January, a $27.3 million investment will be used for constructing a new animal care shelter in the Bronx that is “projected to open in 2024.”

Stray cats in the Bronx

Stray cats also caused sanitation problems and diseases.

“Food left for those cats filled the street with the stench,” said Rachid Sywra who works for a local hair braiding store. A simple shelter built from waterproof tarps and tree branches sits directly in front of his store, next to some rusty trash cans and black plastics bags filled with smelly garbage.

People usually forget to clean the cat food they left around street corners. Instead, they let the food gradually decay and attract mosquitos drumming around.

“This place is not supposed to be their litter box,” Sywra said when he swept up the grains of rice spilled on the ground.

 

Worse, cats with rabies reappeared in the Bronx last year after its extinction in the New York City four years ago. According to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, a stray cat that had bitten someone was found dead in a nearby backyard in the Bronx and subsequently tested positive for rabies on July 19 last year.

“Since they announced plans for the Bronx,” said City Councilman Robert Holden, “we are the only borough without a shelter and we probably have the most animals here.”

“But look on the bright side,” said Georgia, “at least they kept the rat population down. That’s why this neighborhood is not more infested with rats.”

 

(Photo credit to Leafy Yan)

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Featured, Health, Morrisania, Morrisania2 Comments