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School’s Closure Draws Protest

February 7, 2008

The city’s Department of Education (DOE) has decided to close Public School 79, citing poor performance. On Feb. 1, parents and teachers came together to protest the decision, in an early morning rally outside the school’s gates.

“We decided that we just can’t stand by [and do nothing],” said computer teacher Leslie Collier, in a telephone interview later that day. “We’re protesting the fact that we’re been called a failing school.” She said the protest was “loud but civil” and that approximately 100 people, including students, attended.

PS 79, an elementary school on 181st Street at Creston Avenue, is one of five schools in the Bronx that are being shut down, according to Melody Meyer, a DOE spokesperson.

The school recently received an “F” in the DOE’s new scoring system. It appears that the grade is behind the closure, although Meyer said other factors, including the school’s historical performance, also influenced the decision. (Citywide, 50 schools received an F. Only 14 schools are closing, she said.)

Collier, who’s been at the school for 34 years, thinks the closure is grossly unfair. “There are a lot of schools in the city of New York that are truly doing worse than us,” she said, adding that more than 50 percent of the school’s students are scoring average or above average at reading and math. “You can’t tell me that’s a failing school.”

The school’s demise will be gradual, said Meyer. In September, two small elementary schools will move into the building, and PS 79 will shrink to grades 3 through 5. In 2009, the school will only teach grades 4 and 5; in 2010, just grade 5. When the new school year starts in 2011, PS 79 will cease to exist.

“The parents had no say in this, they had no input,” said Collier of the closure. “[Schools] Chancellor [Joel] Klein has shoved it down their throats. It’s been shoved it down the throats of minority parents rather than at a school in a rich white neighborhood.”

Collier said that the city didn’t give the new principal, Pamela Edwards, a chance. Edwards only came on board in November.

According to Collier, all but the most senior of staff will have to reapply for jobs.

Meyer says that the decision to close PS 79 goes deeper than current test scores. “The bigger picture is that the school has a history of not serving students well,” she said.

As evidenced by the protest, Collier and her colleagues are going to go down fighting. “You don’t know until you try,” said Collier.

By JAMES FERGUSSON of the Mount Hope Monitor

Morris Avenue Resident Trades the Bronx for Baghdad

February 7, 2008

In mid-January, William Perez, on a two-week leave from Iraq and back in the Bronx, got down on one knee and proposed to his girlfriend, Mayle Diaz, who quickly gave him the answer he was looking for.

It should have been a happy time for the Morris Avenue couple – and it was. But it was tinged with sadness, too, for Perez is only four months into a 15-month deployment. Unless something changes, he’ll be in Iraq until February 2009. Their wedding, and lives together, will have to wait.

Handling Fear

Perez, 29, a private first class in the U.S. Army, is stationed at a military base in northern Baghdad. The Iraqi capital, he says, is a city of extremes. In some neighborhoods, the streets are littered with garbage, burnt out cars, and dead dogs; the buildings, all blown up or torn down. But turn a corner, he said, or tilt your head, and you might see a new restaurant or store – signs pointing to a brighter future.

Perez works as a bodyguard for a sergeant major. “I have to basically put his life before mine,” he said, in an interview in his apartment while on leave. Iraq

The sergeant major’s responsibilities include visiting other bases, or jss’s, to check on the well bring and morale of the troops. Perez, then, spends much of his time in the back of a armored humvee, rolling from one location to the next.

For safety reasons, they always travel in a four vehicle-convey. A gunner, positioned on the roof of each humvee, commands a 50-caliber gun turret, ready at a moment’s notice to repel an attack.

Improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, are their biggest concern. Since the war began, they’ve claimed the lives of more than 1600 American servicemen and women, according to icasualties.org, a Web site that documents fatalities.

Avoiding an IED is easier said than done. The enemy, said Perez, sometimes hide bombs under piles of trash, or inside animal carcasses. “You’re running on chance,” he said.

Perez’s convey has already had a close call. Late last year, having just passed a checkpoint, an IED, which has been dug into the road, exploded right in front of the lead vehicle. Fortunately no one was injured.

“My platoon sergeant was like ‘You see, it’s not a game out here, you guys have got to take this serious,’” Perez said. “We do, but he’s shook up himself and he’s just letting it out. You can’t blame him, he’s going to feel like crap if one of us loses our life.”

Each soldier, says Perez, deals with fear differently. “I don’t think about it, because thinking about what could happen will kill you in itself,” he said. “When I leave the wire [the base], I always pray. I believe in my god, and I pray, that’s it, and I leave it up to him.”

Before the Army

Perez, a tattooed, broad shouldered man,, dropped out of high school in tenth grade, and spent his teens and twenties jumping from job-to-job.

He worked as a truck diver, as a bouncer at a nightclub, and, more recently, as a fashion specialist at BCBGs, a women’s clothing store on Madison Avenue.

“I always thought I wanted to be a police officer or something but I never did anything about it,” said Perez, “My motivation wasn’t up there.”

Then, a little over a year ago, he bumped in a military recruiter in a Westchester mall. “He started talking to me,” said Perez. “I was like yeah, whatever, you know, just to listen to him to kill some time. I wasn’t really going to take it seriously but then I thought, you know what, I’m not working right now… I was just tired of having jobs, I just wanted a career. I’ve had so many jobs.”

The recruiter helped Perez to get his GED. Boot camp and combat training followed. In October, it was off to Kuwait for more training. “When I got to there all I saw was desert, literally nothing but desert,” he said. “I was just amazed that so much sand existed.”

After Kuwait, it was a flight the Iraq, and headfirst into a war that next month will be five year long.

Love from 6,000 miles

Perez has been planning his next career move. He originally signed up to the Army for three years and 16 weeks. Two years of that remain, but if he reenlists now, he’ll pick up a hefty bonus for his troubles.

“I can’t just come back and live the regular life,” said Perez, who’s also looking at joining the State Police. “I can’t come back to selling women’s clothes, coming out of the army, you know what I mean…. I want to give her [his fiancé] something better, and my son [from a pervious relationship], who lives in Miami, something better.”

Needless to say, Mayle Diaz, the fiancé, wants him to find a job that doesn’t involve being away from home and in harms way. Since he’s been in Iraq, her life has been fraught with worry.

“[When he left] I was crying every day,” Diaz said. “That was how hard it was. I’d think about him and right away I started crying. [I'd think] why he has to be there, I got to support him, all this time I have to wait for him, and then again be strong, and again meltdown, it’s really hard… every woman who has a man in Iraq goes through the same thing.”

“I don’t want to live a life when he’s always going to be over there,” Diaz said. “What about our family, what about us. I don’t care about the benefits, money…. I understand him, he’s different, but as soon as he has a chance I don’t want him there. It’s hard, I don’t want to be selfish with him, but I don’t want him to be selfish [either].”

Back in Baghdad

Perez flew back to Baghdad in late January, to see out the remaining 11 months of his deployment.

Violence has cooled in the Iraqi capital in recent months but it’s still a dangerous place. On Feb. 1, two female suicide bombers killed nearly a 100 people in two Baghdad markets. According to media reports, both women had Down syndrome and may not have known what they were carrying.

In e-mail exchange a few days later, Perez didn’t mention the bombings. Perhaps he had other things on his mind: his fiancé has just found out she’s pregnant. “We’re excited,” he wrote.

Yet another reason to return home safely.

By JAMES FERGUSSON of the Mount Hope Monitor

Beloved Bronx Pastor, Jessie Woodhouse, Dead at 99

February 4, 2008

Jessie L. Woodhouse, a popular Bronx pastor with a love of teaching, poetry, and all things nature, passed away Jan. 9. She was 99.

Her wake and funeral were held on Jan. 17, at the First Bible Church of the Lord’s Mission on Bush Street – the church she founded and presided over for 40 years.

More than 200 friends, family, and fellow clergy from across the city, and beyond, came to pay their respects, in what was a raucous celebration of her long and busy life.

Woodhouse (maiden name Crocker) was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, on Sept. 11, 1908. Her mother died when she was young, and she was raised by her grandparents, before moving to Virginia to live with her father.

She married in 1928, and gave birth to a son, Clinton D. Woodhouse. The marriage didn’t last, however, and Woodhouse and her son soon moved to New York to start to new life.

For many years, she worked at Alexander’s Department Store on Fordham Road at the Grand Concourse (where P.C. Richard & Son now stands). But it was her love of the Lord that took precedent, and in 1962 she was ordained as a preacher of the gospel.

There were obstacles to overcome. “Women coming into the ministry was frowned upon,” said Willie Anderson, a deaconess at the church (and wife of Deacon Tommie Anderson). “But she had a great knowledge of the Word. She could say the Word and a child could understand her.”

In 1967, Woodhouse founded the First Bible Church of the Lord’s Mission in a storefront on Walton Avenue. When a fire consumed the building, the non-denominational church took refuge in the basement of the Andersons’ house on Longfellow Avenue in the South Bronx.

It was long-term solution, however, and in the 1970s the Andersons acquired a wood-frame house, a former synagogue, at 206 Bush St. (near East Burnside Avenue at the Grand Concourse), and converted it into a church. Woodhouse moved into an adjoining apartment, and got down to business.

“She’s the only minister we knew who worked without a salary,” Deaconess Anderson said. “She was concerned about the souls of man.”

Church

Woodhouse’s missionary work took her to Israel, Nigeria, Puerto Rico and Jamaica. But it is her work in this corner of the world that will be best remembered. For years, she ran a food pantry. And she would visit local hospitals and nursing homes, to spread the word of God and bring comfort to the ill and weary.

In 1978, she established the Woodhouse Bible School, which is still going strong today. “She was excellent with children and adults,” said Deacon Anderson. “She could break scripture down into everyday language.”

“I have nothing but the utmost admiration for her and the work she did in the community,” said Pastor Nelson Dukes, Jr., of nearby Fountain Spring Baptist Church.

Cosette Dennis, a longtime parishioner at the church on Bush Street, was friends with Woodhouse for nearly 50 years.  “She prayed me back to life two times,” Dennis said. “When she came to see me in the hospital in New Jersey (following double bypass surgery), I knew I was going to be alright.”

Annette Espinell, a minister at the church, said that along with her piety, Woodhouse was down to earth.

“She was a joker,” Espinell said with a broad smile. “She used to grab on to things we said and make a joke of it. She was very spontaneous, even to the very end.”

Woodhouse liked writing poetry, and was often seen with a notepad in hand. She loved nature too, and enjoyed visiting Westchester to marvel at the trees and countryside, said Deacon Anderson, who with his wife looked after the pastor in the last years of her life.

Woodhouse was predeceased by her son and former husband, and survived by two nephews, a niece, four goddaughters, and numerous cousins.

She was buried in Mount Holiness Cemetery, in Butler, New Jersey, next to her son.

By JOE HIRSCH and JAMES FERGUSSON