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Tyra Banks pays surprise visit to Bedford Park high school to encourage kids to keep up high attendance rates, NY Daily News

America’s next top student may have been among the 400 screaming, crying teens at the High School for Teaching and Professions, where former supermodel Tyra Banks made a surprise appearance Wednesday, the NY Daily News reported.

Banks strutted onstage to promote her new book, “Modelland,” answer questions and congratulate the students on beating 90 other schools so far in a nationwide competition to improve attendance rates. The Bedford Park school has raised its numbers by 4% as part of the Get Schooled Attendance Challenge.

“Any fiercely real, curvalicious girls in the audience?” Banks asked the teens, who leaped out of their seats to strike model poses, one h

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“The Poetry Man” filmmaker gives back


Lehman High School film teacher, James McSherry, reviews student's writing. (LINDSAY MINERVA/The Bronx Ink)

James McSherry has an impressive resume.  The 49-year-old Ivy League graduate published an award winning autobiography, “A Clean Street is a Happy Street,” in 2004.  The Bronx high school teacher also won nine film awards, including one at the Manhattan Film Festival for his seminal work, “Poetry Man” in 2010.

The independent movie made on a shoestring budget was inspired by his childhood friend from Throgs Neck, who was arrested for a drug-related murder in the 1980s, while McSherry was at Columbia, studying for his masters degree in writing. It was at Columbia where McSherry was able to transform his cathartic hobby of  creative writing into a professional calling.

He realized that poetry, and later, film had saved him from the poverty, drugs and violence that engulfed him growing up.  So the Lehman High School graduate returned to his alma mater to teach kids like him.  For the past 20 years, McSherry has created an encouraging environment for students to express themselves, something he wished he had as a teenager.

“I think it helps to have similar experiences, live in the area where you teach, and be able to connect with kids,” said McSherry, dressed in a t-shirt and jeans. His students affectionately gave him “the pound” as they entered class.  “You need empathy to be an artist and a teacher.”

In his fourth floor film and video classroom at Lehman High on East Tremont Avenue, McSherry sat one September morning with engaged teenagers as they edited videos.  In the back corner of the room, he set up a simple, makeshift film booth made out of black construction paper.

Twenty large screen Apple computers now line the perimeter of the room thanks to the hours he spent applying for grants.  Starting with virtually no resources three years ago when he was determined to launch the film class, McSherry fought hard for this equipment.  He paid for the class’s first camera out of his own pocket.

McSherry is convinced of the value of art and mastery of language in education.  “Art empowers on a completely different level,” he said in a serious tone.  Art gives his student a voice.  “McSherry’s class instills confidence in the kids,” said Karen Andronico, Lehman’s assistant principal of Media Arts and Communications.  “They spill their guts into the work.”

Andronico heads up one of the five Small Learning Communities that make up the total Lehman student body of over 3,500 ethnically diverse teenagers.  She said the socioeconomically disadvantaged students want to write about problems that affect their lives.

McSherry experienced many of the issues facing his students today. His alcoholic father was murdered when he was in the eighth grade, and his mother was left alone to raise McSherry and his four siblings.  The family received welfare and they struggled to get by with the help of food stamps.  His brother is a drug abuser and suffers from schizophrenia.   And as featured in “Poetry Man,” his childhood friend went to jail for murder.

“I know what students feel like because I know what they are going through,” McSherry said, adding that he can relate to issues of poverty, drugs, mental illness, single parent households, welfare. His connections with the kids are particularly important since Lehman’s graduation rate in 2010 was 51 percent, 12 percentage points worse than the citywide average.

He guided his tenth grade students to create public safety announcement videos about their own challenges such as birth control and relationships.  Last semester, his students’ Public Safety Announcement on teen dating violence won “Let Your Heart Rule,” a Verizon-sponsored, nationwide competition.  The students won iPads, $1,000 for their school, and an appearance on the Dr. Phil Show.

More importantly, the recognition validated their hard work.

Demi Middleton, one of McSherry’s eleventh grade Media and Television Film Production students, said she and her classmates were in disbelief when they won. “Mr. McSherry has shown his students that you can do whatever you want to do if you put your mind to it and concentrate,” said Middleton. “That’s what we did with Dr. Phil and it was a great feeling!”

“One thing about McSherry is that it’s all about the kids and making them feel successful and supported,” said Adronico.  “He’ll do anything for them.”

McSherry has even taken students on after school trips to the Tribeca Film Festival and coordinated internships at Bronx Net Television.  Andronico said she would not be surprised if he somehow manages to take them to France, where his film was screened in the Cannes Film Festival this past May.

McSherry is also an innovator.  Truth Booth is a project he thought up last winter.  Students are each given two minutes to privately respond on camera to his chosen word: father.

There were no other specific guidelines–just to speak the truth.

“McSherry is a very loving person, and students were able to open up to him because they trust him,” said Teresa Matthews, Lehman’s teacher of Global Voices in Film.  “He could very well be their father and he takes on that role sometimes.”

Just like McSherry’s popular classes, Truth Booth was an instant hit, so much so, that they spent the entire semester focusing on “father” rather than moving on to a different word.

And school counselors were even able to use the videos to help in therapy.  The down to earth teacher said the documentary paid immeasurable dividends–one student reconnected with his father after ten years and another student’s father apologized to him after watching the DVD.

Truth Booth will continue this academic year but the word prompt has yet to be decided.

“Success,” suggested Middleton.

“It makes you think about the future and where students see themselves going,” she added.  “I want to go to college and Mr. McSherry wants me to.  He came from the Bronx, and we come from the Bronx.  He says anyone can do it, it doesn’t matter where you come from or what school.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Bronx Tales, Culture, Education0 Comments

Jobless Bronx resident joins the march on Wall Street

Jobless Bronx resident joins the march on Wall Street


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On Wednesday, the Occupy Wall Street protest got a big boost as labor unions from across the city gathered near the courthouses at Foley Square for the movement's biggest march since it started in early September. (LINDSAY MINERVA/The Bronx Ink)

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Slideshows0 Comments

Bronx synagogue welcomes Jewish New Year with a last goodbye


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The conservative synagogue’s sanctuary of wood and stained glass once bustled with a congregation of almost 1,000. (LINDSAY MINERVA/The Bronx Ink)

On a rainy Wednesday night at the start of Rosh Hashanah, Miriam and Herbert Korman struggled up the stairs to reach the lobby of Temple Emanuel at Parkchester in the Bronx. Eight other congregants waited patiently for the couple to arrive inside the almost empty sanctuary of faded wood and stained glass. As he reached the foyer, 91-year-old Herbert Korman groaned with exhaustion.

It was the final time that the Kormans will lead Jewish New Year services at Temple Emanuel. On Oct. 31, Parkchester’s last conservative synagogue will officially close, bringing an end to another chapter of Jewish history in the Bronx.

“I can’t even imagine not having this,” said Miriam Korman, as she nodded towards the two-story sanctuary. “We’ve been members here for over 50 years.”

The 88-year-old congregation president said she is disheartened by the synagogue’s closing, but with her stroke last July and her husband’s fragile health, it’s time to let go.

The synagogue’s closing comes down to a problem of numbers.

Without the Kormans, visiting Rabbi Avi Novis Deutsch could not even assemble the minimum of 10 adult Jews needed to form a minyan, essentially a quorum to open the arc that holds the Torah, and start rituals to pray for a sweet new year. This time, there was more sense of sorrow than sweetness in the air.

“I feel sad,” said Herbert Korman, the temple ritual chairman, as he clung to his walker for support. “I feel very sad. There are no Jews left here so we can’t continue. That’s what has to happen.”

The rabbi’s recitation of the holy text reverberated across the hall, drawing attention to the almost deserted space that once held close to a thousand members. At times leading the service himself from the front pew, Herbert Korman directed the rabbi to read specific holiday passages.

Temple Emanuel, on the corner of Benedict and Pugsley Avenues, was built in 1948. The congregation started in 1942 at a corner store under the No. 6 train, according to Joan Green, a lifelong member whose father helped raise the money to build the imposing red brick structure. At its peak, the temple overflowed during Shabbat service on Saturdays.

Green’s voice crackled as she described her childhood at the temple: attending Hebrew school, joining the Girl Scouts and witnessing bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies.

“Everything revolved around here,” said the 75-year-old retired recreational therapist. “We had hundreds and hundreds of families. Parkchester had a lot of Jewish people in those days.”

Green said there were so many kids during her time that the rabbi had to combine bar mitzvahs “because they didn’t have enough Saturdays” to hold individual services.

“It was a home away from home for us,” Green said.

Parkchester once needed at least five synagogues to accommodate all the Jewish families in the area, said Miriam Korman. According to the Bronx County Historical Society, almost half of Bronx’s entire population of 1.26 million in 1930 was Jewish. But as of 2002, there were only 45,100 Jews in the borough of 1.3 million people, according to the Jewish Community Relations Council, a non-profit advocacy group.

At Temple Emanuel, George Serrano, 65, and Sharon Long, 52, are among the youngest members. Serrano said many upwardly mobile families moved to more affluent Riverdale and Westchester County in search of better schools. Other aging members simply died or retired to Florida.

“What happened here is part of the Jewish phenomenon–Jews are moving,” said Deutsch, 40, the visiting rabbi, who had flown in from San Francisco. It was his first visit to New York City and he stayed for only three days. About 20 years ago, the congregation had a steep decline in membership, said Green. With much less money coming in, the temple could then only afford student or temporary rabbis, and the lively musical accompaniment of a cantor and organist was no longer in the budget.

Three years ago, the struggling Temple Emanuel transferred the building’s ownership to the Bronx Jewish Community Council Inc., which helped with its finances and the process of closing down. The Jewish non-profit group sold the synagogue in August to its next-door neighbor, the Bronx Charter School for Excellence, for $875,000, according to city records.

But closing a temple isn’t simple. “You can’t just abandon a synagogue,” said Serrano. “We have to liquidate everything, even the Torahs.” He said one of the five holy scrolls will be donated to a Jewish day school in Rockland County. On Oct. 5, Green will also send a scroll wrapped in a shawl to a synagogue in Oklahoma City.

“The spirit of the synagogue will always be present in the building,” said Serrano. The few remaining members have until the end of October to conclude services and move out before the charter school fills their beloved space. It will then be converted into classrooms and will not be torn down, said the charter school’s finance director, Archie Crawford.

Green, who lives in Co-op City, said she is not ready to find a new synagogue to call home. For now, she will focus on the last services, including the conclusion of Yom Kippur on Oct. 8. “And then we are history,” she said.

“L’Shanah Tova,” (to a sweet year) the Kormans said as they greeted other congregants at the conclusion of the Wednesday service. Then they shuffled out of the synagogue and into the dark, rainy night.

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