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Private Money Flows Into Schools for Computer Science Expansion

On Thursday Sept. 22 in a sunny second floor classroom at the Laboratory School of Finance and Technology in Mott Haven, eighth grade students in Ben Samuel-Kalow’s computer programming class saw a pop quiz on the screens of their Mac computers. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, sitting among them, said he saw a glimpse of the future of New York City education, a future he hopes is now one step closer to becoming a reality.

Accompanied by Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina and a collection of public and private sector supporters, de Blasio announced $20 million in new private sector funding for his plan to bring computer science to every public school in New York City. The city will chip in $40 million of its own, the mayor said, out of the total $80 million required to reach every school by 2025.

Mayor Bill de Blasio pairs up with eighth-grader Amiah for a coding exercise. Photo by Mike Elsen-Rooney

Mayor Bill de Blasio pairs up with eighth-grader Amiah for a coding exercise. Photo by Mike Elsen-Rooney

The Laboratory School, which is offering Advanced Placement Computer Science for the first time this year, represents de Blasio’s contention that the initiative will most directly benefit schools serving low-income black and Latino students.

“Let’s face it,” the mayor said, “it was a norm that computer science education was in many ways considered an elite activity.”

This year, 246 schools out of the roughly 1,700 in the city have begun offering computer programming, de Blasio said, and the city has trained 450 teachers to instruct those courses. The city will eventually need 5,000 computer science teachers.

City officials said they hope students will not the only beneficiaries of the program.

“Our employers are starved for talent,” said Gabriella Fialkoff, Director of the mayor’s office of partnerships, “and we all know that talent is one thing we have plenty of in this city.”

She said that by training public school students in programming, the New York technology industry will eventually be able to count on qualified local workers from diverse backgrounds. Technology companies have been under fire for disproportionately employing white men.

Venture Capitalist Fred Wilson, who has led the effort to secure private sector funding, laid out the role of computer science classes in even starker terms. “If you do not know how to tell a machine what to do” in the 21st century, Wilson said, “you will be a second class citizen.”

De Blasio chats with computer programming teacher Ben Samuels-Kalow during his lesson. Photo by Mike Elsen-Rooney

De Blasio chats with computer programming teacher Ben Samuels-Kalow during his lesson. Photo by Mike Elsen-Rooney

As the initiative continues to roll out, schools will have substantial freedom in how specifically to satisfy the requirement of offering computer science instruction. Some schools, Wilson imagined, would offer a full, four-year sequence and become known as places to go for students deeply interested in the subject. Other schools will offer programming as part of existing courses.

Farina said she is not worried that the expansion of computer science will displace other subjects like the fine arts.

“To me it is all about blended learning,” she said. “And it is not an add-on. It’s actually tied in to everything else that they are doing, but also, getting them ready for the next step.”

At the Laboratory School, where a substantial population of students are homeless or do not have dependable access to computers at home, programming classes have offered both obstacles and opportunities. Samuels-Kalow has structured his course around not assigning homework. “That wouldn’t be equitable,” he said, since many students lack a computer, reliable Wi-Fi or even a quiet place to work at home.

Samuels-Kalow’s solution has been to keep computers open and accessible to his students after school, so that those eager to spend more time coding have the opportunity. One of his students, ninth-grader Yaritza, has been a regular at those after school sessions. She said she has never felt a conflict with keeping computer science in her schedule and taking other classes that interested her.

Another student, Amiah, got a taste of both the academic and career benefits of programming when she led de Blasio through an exercise in the Python coding language. After the eighth-grader explained her process to the mayor, de Blasio handed her a business card – in case she is ever looking for an internship.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Education, Southern Bronx0 Comments

Motorcyclist Injured in South Bronx, Police Arrest Good Samaritan

Photo by Mike Elsen-Rooney. Police examine an overturned motorcycle after a crash on Walton Rd. near Yankee Stadium yesterday.

Photo by Mike Elsen-Rooney.
Police examine an overturned motorcycle after a crash on Walton Rd. near Yankee Stadium yesterday.

A motorcycle clipped a car on a side road near Yankee Stadium yesterday, sending the driver flying, and police arrested the man who first rushed to his aid.

The driver of the motorcycle, identified as Joseph Fomo, an ex-cop, by a neighbor, was carried off of Walton Rd. in the South Bronx in an ambulance, while the bystander who first arrived at the man’s side and stayed with him as police and medical workers showed up, left in handcuffs.

At about 4:20PM on Monday, a screech, skid and popping noise echoed down Walton Rd. and through neighboring Joyce Kilmer Park, where families and children gathered to take advantage of the sunny weather and the day off from school.

Moments later, a man with close cropped hair and a gym bag slung across his shoulder was sprinting north on Walton Avenue towards the crash, yelling “call an ambulance!” in Spanish.

As a large crowd gathered, the sprinting man knelt by the side of the driver, who was prostrate and face down in the road with his red and white motorcycle ditched beside him in the road. The Good Samaritan took a stethoscope from his bag to check the driver’s heartbeat. The driver was conscious, but his movements were labored and slow.

Witnesses said a black SUV idling on the side of Walton Rd. pulled out into traffic right as the driver was attempting to pass, clipping the motorcycle and causing the driver to lose control and careen into the back of a van parked further ahead.

A short debate broke out amongst the onlookers over whether to remove the driver’s helmet, with one man taking the helmet in his hands and beginning to pull it off. But an NYPD officer arrived and began urging the spectators to step back. Soon, a fire truck and ambulance arrived, and EMTs cut off the motorcyclist’s jacket, flipped him over, and carefully removed his helmet.

The sprinting helper milled around the police officers and medical workers, even as most of the onlookers had moved out of the middle of the street.

When a police officer asked him, now shirtless, to move to the sidewalk, he did so, but wandered back into the street. When the cop confronted him again, the man became upset, and spoke loudly in Spanish. Seconds later, another officer stepped in, commanding him to return to the sidewalk. When the Good Samaritan continued talking loudly and did not immediately move, another officer, referred to as Sargent Simmons, approached, said “you know what?,” grabbed the man’s hands, and handcuffed him.

Video shot by onlooker Deja Fuentes in the moments after the Good Samaritan is arrested

The crowd began to protest and ask officers why they were arresting someone who had immediately jumped to help the victim.

Several minutes later, police officers looked quizzically at an abandoned gym bag full of clothes, a roll of gauze tape, and other possessions, until onlookers reminded them it belonged to the man they had just arrested – who dropped it in his rush to attend to the injured motorcyclist.

Jessica Fernandez, who lingered on the sidewalk to see the fate of the arrested man, said that actions like this undermined the NYPD’s appeal to communities of color to trust the cops. “How is it that you’re trying to build community relations,” when police arrest people trying to help, Fernandez asked. She thought the fact that the man was speaking in Spanish contributed to the police’s lack of patience with him.

Another onlooker, Deja Fuentes, said “it was not cool to make an example of him,” but she understood the need for caution with so much emergency personnel working in a small area, and a motorcycle that could still be flammable.

Officers at the scene declined to comment on the man’s arrest or on the condition of the driver.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods0 Comments

Jardin de la Roca, a Sanctuary in Melrose


Twelve community gardens dot the Melrose neighborhood in the Bronx. They stand in the shadows of high rises. Each has a specialty, and its own loyal members. The jardin de la roca, or Rock Garden, at the corner of East 160th and Elton streets is known for its domino tournaments and the geology that gives it its name. Reporter Mike Elsen-Rooney takes us there, and speaks to the people who give it life.

Posted in Southern Bronx0 Comments

Bronx Street Art Speaks Many Languages


John “SinXero” Beltran learned quickly that street artists from all corners of the earth know about the Bronx.

The 46-year-old Bronx native began inviting artists to paint legal street murals in the Bronx in 2012, and in 2014 founded a non-profit called TAG Public Arts Project. Since then, dozens of artists have painted for Beltran, a number of them foreign.

One, an Italian artist named Barlo, came to Beltran with a proposal to paint a giant, gold-outlined bird whose wings would be composed of images of feathers from species specific to the Bronx. Beltran had never heard of many of the birds, but the proposal confirmed his belief that artists from across the globe would be eager not only to paint in the Bronx, but also to delve into its history, culture, and even wildlife. The mural now stands on a wall on Ferris Place, in Westchester Square.

"Feathers of NY," a mural by Italian artist Barlo. Photo by John "SinXero" Beltran

“Feathers of NY,” a mural by Italian artist Barlo. Photo by John “SinXero” Beltran

The borough’s tradition of creating iconic graffiti on building walls and subway cars in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and its role in the rise of hip hop have made it a desirable destination for street artists from around the world. Beltran, an abstract artist himself, has welcomed them with open arms. “When we do feature international artists,” Beltran said, “they feel proud being given the opportunity to be part of the history of the Bronx.”

Beltran’s latest mural project brought the French-born and London-based female street artist, Zabou, to a wall in a parking lot behind a Port Morris McDonald’s. Zabou painted a mural of the legendary Bronx-born emcee Grandmaster Flash holding a boombox and peering defiantly over his shoulder.

Zabou was recommended to Beltran through a mutual friend, but she still went through TAG’s selection process, in which artists submit a specific proposal to fill the space Beltran has acquired.

“When I saw the location of this spot,” Zabou said, “I kind of thought okay I need to look what’s happening here in this district, and if there’s any special features anything that would talk to the people directly.”

A self-described “huge hip hop fan,” Zabou knew immediately that she wanted to pay homage to the Bronx’s role in the rise of the genre. She settled on depicting the figure whom many consider its pioneer. Flash has also been gaining prominence in the past month among her friends in London, Zabou said, for his role in “The Get Down,” the Netflix series dramatizing the birth of hip hop in the Bronx.

Zabou's finished mural of Grandmaster Flash. Photo by Mike Elsen-Rooney

Zabou’s finished mural of Grandmaster Flash. Photo by Mike Elsen-Rooney

Beltran said that both fellow artists and the Bronx community have given the mural “rave reviews.”

Chris Landy, 32, and his brother Raliekh, 27, who grew up in the area and frequent the McDonald’s near the painting, found the mural moving, and felt it fit in well with the surrounding area.

The elder Landy, a music producer, immediately recognized Flash, calling him “an integral part of the hip hop community.” The mural, he said, has the potential to impact people in different ways depending on their background and perspective. As a member of the music industry himself, Landy reasoned that if Flash “can make it, I know I can.”

Raliekh Landy was surprised to learn that the artist was French, and said that Zabou “must know about the culture” in the Bronx.

Audrey Connolly, a photographer who documents New York graffiti and street art, was excited not only by the presence of international artists in the Bronx, but also by the increasing international recognition Bronx street art is getting. “It’s about time that people in the rest of the world realized that the Bronx has heroes,” she said.

That realization, according to Beltran, is long overdue. He made clear that he, and the artists he invites, are not trying to make art in the Bronx more serious or legitimate. They are building on a long and proud history of artistic creation in the borough. “When people said, ‘we want to bring Fine Arts back to the Bronx,’” he said, they misunderstood that history. “There’s always been Fine Arts in the Bronx.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Culture, Featured, Morrisania, Southern Bronx0 Comments