October 9, 2020

Growing in faith: Film features Holy Angels and a program that helps children soar to their potential

Stephen Ritz has created a school program that uses urban agriculture to improve students’ lives and the communities where they live. During a visit to Holy Angels School in Indianapolis, he poses with students Ashley Houessinon, left, and Atavia Boyle. (Submitted photo)

Stephen Ritz has created a school program that uses urban agriculture to improve students’ lives and the communities where they live. During a visit to Holy Angels School in Indianapolis, he poses with students Ashley Houessinon, left, and Atavia Boyle. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

It’s a moment of pure musical joy—a scene that is so smile-inducing that it became the perfect ending for a new film about the human spirit, the potential of all children, and the cheerfully contagious crusade of one man in a cheese hat to change communities that face tough odds.

In the scene at Holy Angels School in Indianapolis, Elijah Montgomery drums on the cafeteria table, creating a pulsating beat for the unlikely rap song that Willo McClain delivers flawlessly—a rap song about plants, seeds, learning and the joy of life that leaves her fellow students at the table dancing, smiling and clapping.

Smiling and clapping too in that scene from Generation Growth is Stephen Ritz, the guy in the cheese hat, an educator from the Bronx borough of New York City.

Ritz has created a school-based program that uses urban agriculture to improve student performance and introduce children in low-income families to healthy foods while also striving to “transform communities that are fragmented and marginalized into neighborhoods that are inclusive and thriving.”

Generation Growth—which will be showcased during the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis on Oct. 8-18—captures the inspiration and the outcomes of Ritz’s efforts to plant the seeds of his program across the United States, including at Holy Angels, the only Catholic school featured in the film.

Asked to explain his decision to include Holy Angels in the film, Ritz notes, “When I set out as a teacher—and then sought to scale our program—my goal is to always create settings and opportunities that I would want for my own child. When I entered Holy Angels, I knew this was a place I would be comfortable with for my own child. That is the litmus test for excellence.”

For Ritz, there is also the test for education in the United States, a test that challenges each person and community.

“For me, the greatest resource in the world is the untapped potential of communities like mine,” he says about his economically-struggling Bronx area, similar to the area around Holy Angels. “And more often than not, those children who are on the fringe possess the potential to do amazing things. What we need to do is to make meaningful connections with children. So they want to absorb content that’s going to change their lives.

“When you get to the fact that all children need to be treated the way you want to treat your own children, and when they feel that love, that’s it, man. The doors are open. It’s game on.”

That “game” at Holy Angels—and at schools across the archdiocese, Indiana and the country—comes with high stakes and sobering realities about the connection between nutritional food, healthy children and hopeful futures.

‘It’s had an incredible impact’

In the film, the extent of that reality is shared by Kate Howe, managing director of the Indy Hunger Network.

“There are about 200,000 people using food assistance in our county here in Indianapolis,” she says. “And really the cause is poverty. When people don’t have enough to eat, they don’t perform well at work, they don’t perform well at school. Kids when they’re growing and their brains are developing, if they don’t have sufficient nutrition, it can affect them for a lifetime.”

Ritz uses a high-energy, school-based, urban-agriculture approach as a counter to that reality. In a meeting with Holy Angels’ teachers in the film, he explains the goals of his nine-week program in which he uses tower gardens—and the process of growth from planting seeds to harvesting healthy vegetables—to teach lessons in science, math and language arts.

“You are not going to cure hunger with this thing,” he tells the teachers. “You are not going to cure diabetes. But you are going to pique children’s curiosity and get them excited about healthy food.”

For Holy Angels principal Justin Armitage, his excitement comes in the impact the program has had on the students since it began in 2018 at this Notre Dame ACE Academy.

“It’s had an incredible impact,” says Armitage, in his third year of leading the school. “I’ve been in education for almost 15 years now. Being part of this program has shifted our culture so much quicker than I ever thought it would. Part of it is because the kids are so engaged in their learning. Attendance rates have gone up to where we’re about 95 percent each day. Test scores have increased. The children are doing so much better in school. They want to be here. They want to participate.”

Ritz’s Green Bronx Machine program has been so successful at Holy Angels—where students also are provided breakfast, lunch and dinner through a federal government initiative—that it’s been expanded into the curriculum from kindergarten to sixth grade.

Armitage has also tied the program into the faith foundation of Holy Angels. Last year’s theme for the school was “Rooted in Christ.” This year, it’s “Harvesting Hope.”

“There are so many biblical references to planting a seed and sowing and the fruits of labor,” he says. “We tie all of those things into everything we do. It’s especially important here at Holy Angels because so few of our kids are actually Catholic.

“We use this fun curriculum to build in that moral foundation and tie into our religious beliefs. We have third- and fourth-graders now who are talking about being baptized because of the things they’re learning. They literally see the cycle of life in front of them. It’s just opened so many discussions in the religion classes. It’s been really cool in that aspect.”

“Really cool” might also be the best way to describe the involvement of the many Holy Angels’ students who are featured in the film.

A community celebration

“The kids loved it,” Armitage says. “They thought they were like movie stars. Our halls were filled with a movie producer, director, cameras, lighting. They got to see their teachers getting interviewed in the classroom in the big, bright lights. The students came in one morning, and the film crew was at the front door filming them as they came through the door.”

Now fifth-graders, Rion Simpson and Jamari Briscoe are among the students who were featured when the film crew came to Holy Angels once a month during the 2018-19 school year and the beginning of the 2019-20 school year.

“At first, it was scary watching cameras watch us as we were learning,” says Rion, who is 10 now. “At first, it was stage fright, and then I got used to it. I love nature. I just like to be with plants. I thought of it as a fun way of learning.”

In the film, Jamari is captured sharing part of his ode to the arugula he grew in class.

“I was worried I might mess up,” says Jamari, who is also 10. “I kind of like being the center of attention. Because the more attention you get, the more people know you.”

Both students are excited to see the film, and Armitage is trying to make that happen for the school community, but it’s a challenge in these times of social distancing because of COVID-19 concerns.

When that opportunity arises, the principal hopes everyone will focus on another special scene from the film. That’s the scene that captures the community celebration that happened after the students harvested their plants.

“We threw a harvest party in 2019,” Armitage says. “We took the things we grew off our three tower gardens, and we made four different salads and served them to the families and the parishioners. So it’s really brought the community together, too.”

That’s the one goal that guides him after the school’s two primary goals of helping students get to college and heaven.

“We really want to revitalize and transform this community,” he says. “It starts within the walls of this school.”

It also extends to an area behind the school. There, nine garden boxes have been created in the shape of a cross—a tribute to the life and legacy of the parish’s late pastor, Father Kenneth Taylor.

Armitage knows that “Father K.T.” would embrace this goal from Ritz: “We are very much about engaging the next generation of healthy students, healthy teachers and healthy communities to grow something stronger.”

“Hope is what we need to lean into,” Armitage says. “There’s so much potential in this community if people pitch in and work together to make it great.”

(As part of the Heartland Film Festival, Generation Growth will have its “red carpet” premiere showing at Tibbs Drive-In in Indianapolis at 7:15 p.m. on Oct. 11 on screen 2.)

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