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Norwood jeweler keeping the shine, even in hard times

Keeping the shine, Even in hard times from Connie Preti on Vimeo.

Allan Freilich who presides over the 70-year old jewelry store in Norwood, makes a case for the power of a family business during hard times

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Money, Multimedia0 Comments

From Capitol Hill to the Bronx, scrutiny for College Inc.

Signs greet visitors to Monroe College in Fordham. Photo: Elisabeth Anderson

Signs greet visitors to Monroe College in Fordham. Photo: Elisabeth Anderson

Ruth Garcia used to be a college student, which is a tough feat for someone who hasn’t finished high school.  Tired of living on welfare, the 57-year-old South Bronx mother of seven grown children decided her life needed an upgrade.  She enrolled in a program at Monroe College, a for-profit institution in the Fordham section of the borough, that would allow her to pursue her General Educational Development (GED) high school equivalency and an associate’s degree at the same time.

“When I went, I was on cloud nine,” she said.  “I figured I was getting two for the price of one.  Supposedly TAP and Pell would pick up the bill,” she added, referring to the state and federal loans in her financial aid package.  Monroe’s admissions staff indicated that aid would be enough to cover her education.

But as Garcia would quickly learn, only one of her first four courses earned her a college credit.  She was taking mandatory classes in reading, social studies, and math, but none counted towards her degree.  She was spending down her financial aid, without the credits to show for it.  She dropped out after her second semester.

“When you expect that dream to come true and it pops, you get depressed about it,” she said.  “I’m still stuck in the same spot, and I want to move up the ladder.”

Cases like Garcia’s are currently the subject of a national debate that could forever change for-profit schools’ license to operate.  The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) is leading an investigation that focuses on deceptive marketing and recruiting tactics, over-reliance on federal loan funds as a primary revenue source, and program ineffectiveness as measured by the percent of graduates who secure gainful employment.  The entire for-profit college sector is under scrutiny, with large players like University of Phoenix and Kaplan generating the most attention. Monroe College is not the subject of an individual investigation, but several Monroe students have complained about aggressive recruiting and what they call misleading descriptions of how far their aid packages will go in financing their educations.

After an initial investigation of 15 schools, three hearings, and two reports, the Senate committee demanded data from an additional 30 institutions that collectively operate nearly 100 schools, of which Monroe College is not one; this information is currently under review.  The Department of Education has just approved its own set of regulations related to the controversy, which will go into effect in July 2011.  The new rules aim to strengthen federal student aid programs by protecting students from aggressive or misleading recruiting practices, providing higher education consumers with better information about colleges’ program effectiveness, and working to see that only eligible students receive aid.

“The basic regulatory framework within these schools operate creates perverse incentives for excessive profitability,” said Barmak Nassirian, Associate Executive Director of External Relations at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), and a critic of for-profit college practices.  AACRAO is a national nonprofit professional association of more than 10,000 higher education admissions and registration professionals.

According to the federal Department of Education, students at for-profit institutions represent 11 percent of all higher education students, but 26 percent of all student loans and 43 percent of all loan defaulters.  The schools carry “obscene bottom lines that they generate based almost entirely on tax dollars,” Nassirian said.  More than a quarter of for-profit colleges receive 80 percent of their revenues from taxpayer-financed federal student aid.  Nassirian said that he doesn’t believe every school is a bad actor, but that the causality can’t be overlooked.  “Human nature tends to look at short-term motives,” he said.  “If the federal regulatory system doesn’t kick in, don’t be surprised if the profit motive takes over.”

Many for-profit colleges target low-income and minority student candidates who qualify for federal loans.  Monroe College offers certificates, associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees at its main Bronx campus and two satellites in New Rochelle, in Westchester County, and on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia; the St. Lucia campus is accredited as an American institution offering American degrees, meaning students may apply for federal aid.  Monroe’s Bronx campus, a series of nondescript mid-rise buildings along a commercial stretch of Jerome Avenue, caters to a largely female, minority, lower-income student base.  Nearly three-quarters of undergraduates enrolled in the fall of 2009 were women; 42 percent were black, and half were Hispanic.

Monroe officials defend their institution’s record and say it’s wrong to target for-profit schools.  “Clearly there are problems in all sectors of higher education,” said Dr. Donald Simon, the school’s assistant vice president of governmental affairs. “Selecting one sector and excluding the others is counterproductive.” He added that according to state education department data, Monroe College has the third-highest number of minority baccalaureate grads in New York State, in any sector.

Indeed, state data from 2006, the most recent available, supports the notion that minority students get their associate’s degrees in two years at a much higher rate at for-profit schools than elsewhere.  More than 27 percent  of black students graduated in that timeframe, compared to 11.5 percent at independent schools, 3.7 percent at State University of New York (SUNY) schools, and 1.3 percent at City University of New York (CUNY) schools.  The picture is similar for Hispanics, with 28.7 percent of for-profit students getting associate’s degrees in two years, compared to 17.7 percent at independent schools, 5.3 percent at SUNY schools and 1.2 percent at CUNY schools.

“New York State’s proprietary degree-granting colleges have the highest associate degree graduation rate of any of the four sectors,” Simon added.  Preliminary data for 2009 from the New York State Office of Higher Education shows proprietary or for-profit schools coming in second place to independent colleges, although the data has not yet been fully edited.  Thirty percent of full-time first-time students, of any ethnicity, at for-profit schools earned an associate’s degree within two years, compared to 42 percent at independent schools. Both for-profit and independent schools did much better than SUNY and CUNY schools, which showed two-year associate’s degree graduation rates of 11.4 percent and 2.3 percent, respectively.

Like other for-profit schools, Monroe College isn’t shy about recruiting prospective students.  Marlyn Morillo, a 28-year-old South Bronx resident originally from the Dominican Republic, fit the profile of a typical Monroe College student when she was heavily recruited by the school.  She applied and was accepted to a joint GED and associate’s degree program in 2008.  “By Fordham Road, they were giving out cards and magazines with what courses you could do,” she said.  Morillo said that six representatives from Monroe College had a table set up outside the Fordham Road subway stop the day she applied.

Morillo said she was captivated by the promise of being able to pursue her GED and associate’s degree at the same time, and by the thought of how proud her 11, eight-, and four-year-old children would be to see her in school.

She was getting assistance from a social service agency called FACTS when she was accepted to Monroe College.  The group urged her not to enroll, explaining potential pitfalls in earning credits and financing her education.  FACTS is where Morillo met Carol Williams, who now runs the College Prep Program at Grace Outreach, a South Bronx non-profit organization helping women earn their GEDs and prepare for college.

Williams said for-profit colleges frequently use the two-for-one GED and associate’s degree package as a marketing device.  What they don’t tell prospective students, however, is the impracticality of such an approach.  Most students who don’t yet have their GEDs are unqualified to take college-level courses, and even those who are can be subject to school restrictions about how many of the classes they take will earn them college credits before they get their GEDs.  This means students can be taking and draining their aid packages on college classes that are non-credited.  “I tell my students to do it the right way,” she said.  “Get your GED, then apply to college.”

Morillo, now enrolled in Williams’ college prep course and applying to Bronx Community College, said she still spots Monroe recruiters frequently at the same location, during rush hour, and that she’s been approached again.  “I still see them and I say, ‘Oh no no, no thank you,’” she said.  On one occasion two months ago, she told recruiters she attended Lehman College, so that they’d let her go.  “And they tried to convince me, ‘You should have gone to Monroe.’  I said, ‘Don’t convince me.’ ”  Morillo, who wants to be a social worker, said she feels like she’s averted a big mistake by not enrolling in Monroe and choosing to get her GED before re-applying to college.  “You don’t know how much,” she said.  If she had chosen her original path, “Probably right now, I’d be crying.”

Monroe College Way, near the school's main buildings. Photo: Elisabeth Anderson

Monroe College Way, near the school's main buildings. Photo: Elisabeth Anderson

The New York Post reported in July that Monroe College spends about $3 million a year on marketing and pulls in $90 million in tuition, mostly from taxpayer-backed federal loans and state and federal grants given to 99 percent of its students.  Representatives from Monroe would neither confirm nor deny these figures, and said its financial information is  private.

Colleges around the country have faced criticism for admissions-related practices, such as pumping up applicant numbers to enhance selectivity.  A problem that appears to be unique to certain for-profit schools is the use of recruiter commissions.  “When the basis for an admission officer’s pay is based on commission, the incentive to mislead students is so prominent,” said David Hawkins, director of public policy for the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), a politically-active membership group of 11,000 professionals who help students make choices about pursuing postsecondary education; the group is critical of current for-profit college practices and does not currently include individuals from for-profits among its membership ranks.  Even some administrators at for-profit schools say the rules need to be changed, and that the federal government should have cracked down on aggressive recruiting a long time ago.

According to Hawkins, who testified during the second Senate HELP Committee hearing on for-profit colleges on Aug. 4, the friendly regulatory environment of the past decade allowed the for-profit college industry to boom.  With many of the schools’ parent companies publicly traded, he said the schools needed to show consistent increases in enrollment as a marker of growth to investors.  Former President George W. Bush signed legislation creating 12 loopholes commonly known as “safe harbors,” which kept the enrollment-based commissions legal.

The Department of Education’s forthcoming regulations would undo those loopholes, a step in the right direction, according to Hawkins.  On Oct. 28, the Obama administration released a broad set of rules to strengthen federal student aid programs at for-profit, nonprofit and public institutions by protecting students from aggressive or misleading recruiting practices, providing consumers with better information about the effectiveness of career college and training programs, and working to see that only eligible students or programs receive aid.  These regulations are expected to be implemented in July 2011.

“We certainly welcome the for-profits as a player in the U.S.,” Hawkins said.  “We have some hope that the successful for-profit colleges will adhere to the standards and by that token, earn a return.”

National Center for Education Statistics data show that with many students starting and draining their aid packages on remedial classes – New York State allows associate’s degree candidates only six semesters of TAP aid – just 60 percent of students who started at Monroe full-time in the fall of 2008 returned in the fall of 2009.  Part-timers fared worse, with only 53 percent returning.  Just half of full-time, first-time students graduated within 150 percent of “normal time” to complete their program; two years is normal time for an associate’s degree, four years for a bachelor’s.  While better than the 44 percent graduation rate for a bachelor’s degree within six years at CUNY schools, it is less than the nearly 70 percent of bachelor’s graduates in the same timeframe at independent schools and 61.2 percent at SUNY schools, according to 2008 data from the New York State Office of Higher Education.

The differences between these various forms of higher education are often mysterious to minority and low-income students. Scherline Feliciano wishes she’d been savvy to potentially misleading marketing.  The 24-year-old, who lives with her mother in the Southwest Bronx, has at least $2,500 in debt to show for her one-month-and-one-week stint at Monroe College.

Students work with a tutor at Grace Outreach in Mott Haven. Photo: Elisabeth Anderson

Students work with a tutor at Grace Outreach in Mott Haven. Photo: Elisabeth Anderson

Enrolled in a joint GED and associate’s degree program, Feliciano said she felt unprepared.  “I didn’t feel like I was ready,” she said.  “If I can’t understand the teachers, what’s the purpose of going to that school?”  She added that the college-level courses she was enrolled in were not credited.  “That’s just like a big waste of time,” she said.  “I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.”  Feliciano is now studying for her GED, and then hopes to major in psychology at Lehman College, part of the CUNY system.

Of the 2,800 students who either graduated or dropped out of Monroe since 2007, 23.1 percent have defaulted on their government-backed loans, according to for-profit college loan repayment data released by the Department of Education in August; those still enrolled are not included in the analysis.  The rate is nearly seven times the 3.6 percent at private Fordham University and nearly four times the six percent rate at Lehman College.  “If fewer than one-third of your graduates can pay back their loans,” Nassirian said, speaking of for-profit colleges overall, “you are a bad apple.”

Simon, Monroe’s government affairs chief, says the numbers may be misleading.  “The current debate over for-profit education is problematic because it does not consider institutional outcomes such as graduation and placement, but deals with a limited selection of numbers, specifically student repayment of loan principal,” he said.  “Ironically, federal regulations permit students to defer repayment of loan principal yet those who appropriately use such opportunities are being considered a negative statistic against the college.”  Administrators at for-profit schools also agree that the federal and state financial aid rules can be complex and difficult for students to understand.  That’s how many get in to trouble without realizing it.

National legislation that might help is still many months away, according to a Senate HELP Committee official.  Chairman Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) plans to hold at least one more hearing and review the results of the latest round of materials requested from an additional 60 for-profit colleges first, she said.

Another big question is the Department of Education’s controversial gainful employment regulation, which would require for-profits to show the value of the education they provide via statistics showing graduation and job placement rates for school programs.  This will be an item to watch, as the department reacts to nearly 90,000 comments received on its proposals.

Two days of public hearings were held on Nov. 4 and 5, and the department has also been hosting more than 30 meetings this fall with individuals and organizations who submitted comments on the proposed regulation; one of these meetings, on Oct. 18, was with representatives from Monroe College.  According to an official in the Department of Education press office, Monroe leadership and staff did express concern with the gainful employment rule at the meeting, but stated that they felt it was possible to make changes that would bring their programs into good standing under the proposed rule.  Monroe’s Simon would not comment specifically on the meeting, but stressed how important it is that the department rules be “realistic and reasonable.”

A Monroe graduate named Trina Thompson generated national attention last year, when she threatened to sue the school for $75,000 worth of tuition reimbursement and personal stress because, she alleged, the school’s career services department didn’t do enough to help her land a job after graduation.  According to Gary Axelbank, Monroe’s director of public relations, “It’s a non-issue.  It was not even a lawsuit.”  Thompson filed a complaint but never a lawsuit.  Axelbank, who added that Monroe’s mission is to provide education focused on job training, said that Monroe hired more career counselors when the economy worsened.  Thompson could not be reached for comment.

There are many cases of hope in the Bronx.  Betsy Vega’s comes with a warning. Vega is on track to get her GED, studying hard at Grace Outreach.  The 22-year-old had aged out of New York City’s foster care system and was working minimum wage jobs when she decided to enroll at a for-profit college in Queens.  She spent two years earning 15 credits, but no GED.  She still owes the school between $3,000 and $4,000.  Vega hopes others won’t make her mistakes.  “Focus on one thing at a time,” she said.  “Especially with all these sharks in the water.  You get nothing.  They only sell you dreams.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Education, Money, Northwest Bronx, Politics, Southern Bronx0 Comments

Turning up the tech at a Kingsbridge school

William Tsang, MOUSE Squad Coordinator at In-Tech Academy, works with students. Photo: courtesy Susan Schwartz.

William Tsang, MOUSE Squad Coordinator at In-Tech Academy, works with students. Photo: courtesy Susan Schwartz.

At In-Tech Academy in Kingsbridge, the school IT staff is hard at work most weekday afternoons, managing tech support requests like setting up networks, connecting computers to the Internet, and computer troubleshooting.  Staff members like Nick and Jonathan also standby to help teachers with laptop carts, SMART Boards, and videoconferencing.

Nothing too out of the ordinary here, except that Nick’s in the 7th grade, and Jonathan’s in the 11th.

These In-Tech students are part of their school’s MOUSE Squad, a program that trains and supports students in managing leading-edge technical support help desks in their schools, improving the ability to use technology to enhance learning, while also providing a hands-on learning experience for students.

“I have a big interest in technology,” said Nick, now in his second year on the squad.  “It makes me feel important because people rely on my expertise.”

“When I am fixing computers, I feel good,” Jonathan added.  “It’s like the feeling you get when you make a shot in basketball.”

MOUSE is a youth development organization that provides the funds to help underserved students to provide tech support and leadership in their schools.  Since 1997, New York City-based MOUSE has grown to serve 260 schools across four states.  The organization has shown solid results across key indicators of student success, like academic performance and attendance, and helps save schools an average of $19,000 a year on technology support costs.

In-Tech Academy was one of the first schools to get a MOUSE Squad, in 2001.  Today, it is one of 100 New York City schools that will benefit from a landmark $1.1 million grant awarded to the program as part of the NYC Connected Learning Initiative, from the U.S. Department of Commerce Broadband Technology Opportunities Program.

NYC Connected Learning aims to increase the use of broadband technology and enhance educational outcomes for public school students in communities across the city with the highest need.  As part of this program, more than 18,000 middle school students and their families are receiving desktop computers, educational software, training and broadband access at home.

The school’s principal, Yvette Allen listed the many benefits she sees from the federal technology grant.  “NYCL fulfills our vision for providing computers in the classroom,” she said, along with “technology at home, teachers integrating technology in the curriculum with parents involved in the use of technology and student learning.”

It’s this comprehensive approach to technology education – teaching through hands on experience and school and reinforcing lessons learned via access at home – that Allen and her colleagues hope will propel In-Tech’s students to digitally-savvy, successful futures.

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Blog, Education0 Comments

Teaching Forward

Teaching Forward from Connie Preti on Vimeo.

Lorraine Valentin runs a GED math class at Grace Outreach in the South Bronx.

Posted in Bronx Beats, Education, Multimedia0 Comments

For Bronx women, some help on a tough road to college

Lorraine Valentin works with her students at Grace Outreach. Photo: Elisabeth Anderson

Lorraine Valentin, in black t-shirt, works with her students at Grace Outreach. Photo: Elisabeth Anderson

It was lunchtime, and Lorraine Valentin’s students were ready for a break.  But not before the 27-year-old Valentin ran through a few more math problems.  She was up, and down, and up again, bouncing from student to student in her General Educational Development (GED) prep tutorial at Grace Outreach in Mott Haven.

“It’s like having Rosie Perez as your math tutor,” said Andrew Rubinson, 49, the nonprofit group’s executive director.  “She’s Bronx all the way.”

Indeed, Valentin has been in the Bronx since her family moved to the borough from Puerto Rico when she was a year old, and she’s been a tutor and teacher’s assistant at Grace Outreach for three years.  A lean operation with just three teachers and six tutors, Grace Outreach has helped 565 women earn their GEDs.

During the 2009-2010 school year, 133 of 244 Grace Outreach students who took the GED exam, or 55 percent, passed; an additional 34 were what the program refers to as “two-steppers,” or students sent by teachers to take the exam since they were likely to pass three or four of the test’s five sections, meaning they would only need to focus on the remaining one or two when they re-take it.  While the Community Service Society reported last year that there is no centralized city reporting of GED program success rates, it’s clear that Grace Outreach’s pass rate of 55 percent is substantially better than 47.5 percent, pass rate for GED exam-takers citywide.

The pictures of Grace Outreach’s GED graduates line the hallway of the nonprofit organization’s space on the fifth floor of Immaculate Conception, a Catholic elementary school.  Valentin was one of those women.  She came to Grace Outreach in 2007 after watching her “draining financial aid” finally dry up at for-profit Monroe College.  Monroe accepted Valentin without a GED to take both a GED prep course as well as start an associate degree in business management.  She wasn’t prepared for the latter, and fell behind.  “I realized I wasn’t making credits,” Valentin said.

She maxed out her aid before she had her GED and then found Grace Outreach advertised at a local church and made a call.  With just two weeks of attention at Grace Outreach, she passed the test.  “I came in, and we just got things done!” she said.  The staff was so impressed they offered her a full-time tutoring job.

Grace Outreach grew out of Grace Institute, a New York City institution founded by chemical company chief W.R. Grace in 1897 to help low-income women secure jobs.  In 2005 his great granddaughter-in-law, Margaret Grace, opened the nonprofit’s doors, with a mission to help Bronx women with jobs and education.

While Valentin said she considers herself lucky, she still wishes financial constraints didn’t make getting back to college so difficult.

“College prep is really about three things – money, money, and money,” Rubinson said.  Grace Outreach piloted a college prep program nearly two years ago to help students, 90 percent of whom are Grace Outreach GED graduates, make smart decisions about financing their college educations.

It’s a program model that is likely to start cropping up around the country. President Barack Obama is pushing for the United States to regain the global lead in college completion by 2020.  Approximately 37 million Americans aged 25 to 64 have started but dropped out of college.  That’s equivalent to about one-fifth of the nation’s workforce.

The Obama-backed initiative places special emphasis on community colleges, which educate 45 percent of the nation’s undergraduates.  The president’s focus on community colleges is also being supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which announced it would donate $34.8 million over five years for a competitive pool of grants for proposals to increase the graduation rates of community college students.

Professionals at Grace Outreach believe that structure and encouragement are essential in that quest to college completion.  The organization’s college prep program manager, Carol Williams, said most of her students have the potential to go to college, but there was no one there to support them.  Williams, 39, developed, runs, and teaches the two-year-old curriculum for three hours every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoon.  The goal of her teaching is to prepare students to take the City University of New York (CUNY) placement test, which covers reading, writing, and math; students who pass these are exempt from taking remedial courses when they enroll at a CUNY school.

This can mean the difference between staying in college and dropping out, Williams said.  She said 95 percent of her students receive full financial aid packages from CUNY; a student who is using that aid solely toward college-level coursework is much more likely to graduate.  Those who drain down their aid on remedial work often quit when the money runs out.

Williams’ course begins with a placement test to gauge how much students know in the math, reading, and writing subjects that will be tested.  The next week, Williams and her colleagues begin working hand-in-hand with students as they complete their college and financial aid applications.  Grace Outreach subsidizes the $65 CUNY application fee, so students only pay $30 themselves.

For three months, students vigorously prepare for the placement test.  Those who started in Williams’ class this September will take the test in mid-December; they will have an opportunity to take a CUNY-sponsored 20-hour prep workshop and re-take the test in early January if needed.  This maximizes the chance that students can collect exemptions prior to the start of CUNY courses in late January.

Williams never has more than 20 students in her class.  Of the 36 total who applied to college in the pilot year, 31 were still enrolled in those colleges in September 2009.  Some of the schools they attended were two-year institutions like Hostos Community College and Bronx Community College, and four-year institutions like Lehman College and John Jay College.

“I’d love to go back to college to become an official math teacher,” said Valentin.  “I will be going back.”  At the end of her workday, she still asks the teachers at Grace Outreach to give her challenging problems to do at home; she and her six-year-old daughter sit down to do their homework together.  She plans to enroll at Bronx Community College as soon as possible.  Grace Outreach is working to provide a loan that will make it happen.

Teaching Forward from Connie Preti on Vimeo.

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Education, Southern Bronx1 Comment

Hot Meals and Hospitality

Hot Meals & Hospitality from Connie Preti on Vimeo.

The Bronx Ink reports on a soup kitchen in the Northwest Bronx that’s working to meet increased needs and demand among residents.

Posted in Bronx Life, Food, Multimedia0 Comments

Polling snafus persist for some Bronx voters

Adam King, a poll worker at P.S. 123 in Melrose, waits outside to welcome voters. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Adam King, a poll worker at P.S. 123 in Melrose, waits outside to welcome voters. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Tiny font, scanner problems, and privacy complaints topped the list of Bronx voter-reported gripes during Tuesday’s general election.

Voters said the new electronic scanners caused less confusion this time compared to the chaos of September’s primary, but they were still far from perfect.

Soundview seniors complained that they couldn’t read the small type, while Mott Haven voters said the ballots were too big for the scanners.  Still other voters in Fordham were put off when asked to hand their ballots to poll workers prior to placing them in the scanners, potentially compromising their privacy.

“I thought the older version was better,” Sharon Walker, 47, of Highbridge, said of the new ballots, expressing a concern shared by many who hoped they had left ballot-related confusion behind in the primary.  “There’s too many steps.  The words on the paper were too small.  The workers seemed lost too, they weren’t very helpful.”

The 2010 election marks New York State’s debut for the electronic paper ballots, replacing the old lever polling booths.  The new method was designed to streamline voting and increase efficiency in tallying results.

However, the new machines faced so much criticism in September that Mayor Michael Bloomberg called the primary “a royal screw-up.”  The city received numerous complaints about the ballot’s typeface, confusing instructions, and non-working scanners. When the Board of Elections failed to sufficiently address the problems in time for the general election, Bloomberg took action last week, firing Board of Elections chief George Gonzalez.

“Mr. Gonzalez screwed up!” said City Councilman G. Oliver Koppell who represents portions of the north Bronx.  Of the firing, he added “It’s probably a good thing.”

Even with the firing at the top, there were fewer complaints on Tuesday than on primary day, according to Marjorie Lindblom, a lawyer working with the Election Protection Committee, a group that fields complaint calls.

Still, a smattering of on-site snafus made for a challenging general election day in the Bronx and across the city. The election committee reported a number of issues ranging from broken polling machines to unprepared workers from Brooklyn, the Upper East Side and into the Bronx.  The Bronx Ink conducted exit interviews at 29 sites throughout the borough, and participants at a majority of them reported system-related problems.

The most common complaint was that the paper ballot was difficult to read.  “I don’t think the forms were user friendly,” said Courtney Foster, 42, of Norwood.  “And I didn’t see anyone there to help you.”  Donald Lundy, 65, also of Norwood, said the layout of the ballot was “a bit too congested.”

The next step – walking the paper ballots over to an electronic scanner –  was not a voter favorite.  “I thought the voting machines stunk,” griped Ruth Lentz of Riverdale.  Lentz, who is 89, who has never missed an election, lamented the loss of the lever system.

In some neighborhoods, voters had to wait for workers to deal with glitches. In Mott Haven, one of the two polling machines at the Carmen Parsons Senior Center did not work until 7 a.m.  Problems persisted later in the day when some ballots were not cut properly and did not fit in the scanners.  “The first form that they gave me, it was bigger than the space,” she Maria Pena, 32, of Melrose.  Pena had to toss out her first ballot and fill in a second.

Voters also lamented the new lost privacy.  In the old lever system, voters cast their ballots in a curtain-enclosed booth. In the electronic system, voters hand their paper ballot to a worker to scan.  “Some people thought maybe workers were looking at their ballots while they scanned them,” Lindblom said.

“It’s not private enough,” said Perneter McClary, 64, of Fordham, who missed the old booths.  “Before, the curtains guarded you and you were alone.”

In addition, in neighborhoods such as Highbridge and Williamsbridge, lines of residents snaked outside polling sites.  Also in Williamsbridge, the polling site at P.S. 78 opened 20 minutes late because security guards wouldn’t let poll workers inside on time.

In Soundview, Freedom Party campaign workers handed out flyers just outside of P.S. 93, in violation of a prohibition against campaigning close to the polling site; they remained on the premises for more than two hours, before they left on their own.

Unprepared poll workers were the source of some complaints, albeit fewer than Lindblom anticipated. The executive director of the New York City League of Women Voters explained that poll workers were trained to instruct voters to turn over their ballot to see two propositions on the back.  They were also trained to correct the incorrect voting instructions printed on the ballot.  His colleague said she was not confident workers would act consistently.  “I think the really underreported story is the personnel,” said Kate Duran, chair of the League’s city affairs committee. Duran, who was coordinating a polling site in Brooklyn, said some of her workers didn’t show up because they would have to work from 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Koppell wondered on the eve of the election if the small cadre of poll workers was up to the task of handling the complicated system.  “It requires going to one place, then taking the ballot to a second place to fill it out, and to a third place to have it counted,” he said.  “I’m very nervous.”

Elected officials and advocacy groups said they will continue to push for needed reforms.

In the meantime, Bronx voters are taking the new system in stride.

“We’ll get used to it,” said Darlene Cruz, 53, of Soundview.  “But I didn’t understand what I was doing.”

Exit polls and additional reporting by the Bronx Ink staff.

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Election 2010, Politics0 Comments

Bringing the farm to the Bronx

Vegetables came straight from the farm to the Bronx last Thursday. Photo: Elisabeth Anderson

Vegetables came straight from the farm to the Bronx last Thursday. Photo: Elisabeth Anderson

It felt like Indian summer in the northwest Bronx on October 28th, and residents were enjoying its harvest.  Each visitor to the Norwood Food Co-op distribution event outside the Lutheran Church of the Epiphany on East 206th Street picked through farm-fresh eggs, yogurts, green tomatoes and two varieties of apples, stuffing them into canvas shoulder bags.

For a moment it was possible to forget that the 205th Street D train station was a half block away.

That’s the appeal of this Community Sponsored Agriculture food co-op, which connects nearly 60 Bronx families with Norwich Meadows Farm upstate.  From June through early November, fruits and vegetables are picked at the farm and loaded onto a truck that arrives in the Bronx by 2:30 p.m. Between 4 and 7 p.m., the produce is available to co-op members in Norwood.  The harvest changes week to week, depending on the weather and the season.

The co-op’s most common share option feeds a family of two to four people.  The $315 seasonal fee comes to about $15 a week.  Last week, that money went a long way; each family received apples, potatoes, greens, radishes, green tomatoes, turnips, Brussels sprouts, leeks, milk, yogurt, butter, honey, granola, and eggs.  The co-op estimates that families save an average of 15 to 20 percent each season over what they’d pay for comparable organic produce at a green market.

“What’s good this week?  Brussels sprouts!” said volunteer Fred Dowd, 77, who was manning last week’s distribution event.  Co-op members must volunteer four hours each season, and all new members must attend an orientation and training session.

Dowd, who was joined at the event by his wife Cathy, has lived in Norwood for 24 years and been affiliated with the co-op for three.  He said now that he’s retired, he enjoys being out meeting people, and appreciates that the co-op makes it easier to eat healthfully.

He recommended bags of Macoun and Empire apples to co-op member Christina Mozzicato, 30.  “They look great!” exclaimed Mozzicato, as she added the apples to her bag.

Mozzicato, who lives in Woodlawn, sung the praises of the co-op.  “It’s a great way when you’re living in the Bronx to get fresh food,” she said.  “There aren’t that many options in the Bronx.”

Indeed, Norwood especially is lacking in such options as it awaits the reopening of its only supermarket, FoodTown, which was destroyed in a December 2009 fire.  It’s slated to reopen by the end of this year.

The co-op, which is affiliated with nonprofit Just Food, also aims to support the greater good.  It accepts EBT/Food Stamps, and any leftovers at the end of distribution events are driven over to the soup kitchen at Part of the Solution in Fordham.

The summer/fall season is coming to an end next week, and members are looking forward to monthly winter deliveries from December through May that may include items like fresh jam, maple syrup, and organic chicken in addition to the produce and dairy.

While new members generally join the co-op in the summer instead of winter, Dowd encouraged them to plan ahead.  “A lot of people will stop and want to buy something,” he said of passersby.  “I tell them, ‘you can sign up for next year!’”

To learn more about the Norwood Food Co-op, hungry Bronxites can visit or call 718-514-3305.

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