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Teachers, Students Continue to Protest School’s Closure

March 6, 2009

On the evening of Feb. 12, more than 150 protestors from MS 399′s school community marched to MS 45 on Lorillard Place in Fordham, for a Community Education Council 10 meeting, to bring attention to the Department of Education’s decision to close their school.

Students, parents, and teachers held another protest back in December (soon after the DOE’s announcement), but their more recent one specifically targeted Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein’s control over public schools.

School Protest

“He’s [Klein] an autocrat,” said Vincent Wojsnis, the United Federation of Teachers Chapter Leader and a teacher at the school. “He says the schools have to be held accountable, but who is he accountable to?”

Wojsnis and other critics say the DOE’s reasons for closing a school are unclear. While MS 399, a sixth through eighth grade school located on East 184rd Street, received a grade D in its 2007/08 progress report, the school was deemed “proficient” in its quality reviews for both academic years.

Wojsnis called the process “opaque and subjective…characterized by arrogance and indifference on the part of the DOE towards the needs of the students, the concerns of the parents or the experiences of the teachers.”

Melody Meyer, a DOE spokesperson, said closure decisions are made following years of evaluation. “It’s not an indictment on the principal or teachers,” she added. “It’s about the way the school is set up and whether it’s going to turn around and how quickly.”

MS 399 will be replaced by two smaller middle schools: the Creston Academy and East Fordham Academy for the Arts.  Both will move into the building in September.  MS 399 will shrink a grade a year until it finally closes in 2011.

According to the DOE, Creston Academy was created in alliance with Good Shepherd Services, a youth development and education agency. The new school aims to provide mentors and advisors for each student.

East Fordham Academy for the Arts will offer various after-school arts programs and have an interactive, hands-on curriculum.

Meyer said the DOE receives “more than enough” proposals for new schools every year from educators, non-profits and community groups and that the department carefully selects which school models to put in place and in which communities.

At the Feb. 12 meeting, a student presented the Education Council with a petition, containing a thousand signatures, that asks Klein to revoke his decision to close MS 399.

Eighth-grader Zaria Thuesday spoke for herself and a fellow classmate who was unable to attend the meeting. She credited MS 399 for their acceptance to specialized high schools, LaGuardia Arts and Bronx High School of Science.

Joyce Hinton, president of the school’s parents association, said that the school has a great support team and that the DOE didn’t give new principal Angela Ledda and the teachers enough time to turn things around.

Adolfo Carrión, who until recently was the Bronx borough president, believes parents and teachers have a point. “While I wholeheartedly agree that we must intervene immediately at schools that are failing our students, I do believe the decision to close down MS 399 deserves further examination,” Carrión said in a statement. “I respectfully request that the Department give consideration to the communities’ input.”

Before the meeting closed, Education Council 10 President Marvin Shelton addressed the audience. “I’m very impressed with the students,” he said. “The message has been received loud and clear. Don’t give up.”


Landlord Guilty of Firefighter Deaths

March 6, 2009

Two tenants of a Mount Hope apartment building have been acquitted of manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and reckless endangerment in the deaths of two firefighters who leapt from a fourth floor window to escape a rampant fire on Jan. 23, 2005; but a separate jury found the former landlord, Cesar Rios, guilty of all but the most serious manslaughter charges.

Rios, 58, faces up to four years in prison. The current landlord, a corporation called 234 E. 178th Street, was also found guilty and can be fined up to $15,000.

The blaze began when an old electrical outlet sparked a fire in Rafael Castillo’s third floor apartment at 236 E. 178th St., and quickly spread to Caridad Coste’s apartment on the fourth floor where it trapped six firefighters who were scouting the building for tenants.

The firefighters took the only visible escape route – a window in Coste’s apartment – and landed on the concrete courtyard below. Four of the firefighters survived the fall, some with massive injuries, but Lt. Curtis Meyran, 46, and Lt. John Bellew, 37, died.

Prosecutors blamed the tenants for the deaths. They said they had subdivided their apartments with illegal walls, creating a maze of tiny bedrooms that blocked the firefighters’ access to the fire escapes. The landlords were accused of neglecting to remove the partitions.

Defense attorneys argued that other conditions, such as extreme weather, frozen hydrants, faulty radios, ambiguous firefighter protocol, and lack of personal safety ropes contributed to the tragedy and cited the Fire Department as being at fault. The two juries reached their verdicts in mid-February.

The tragedy, known as Black Sunday because of a third firefighter death in Brooklyn that day, gives us a cursory glimpse into the claustrophobic living conditions of some of the city’s dwellers. Cheap rooms in illegally partitioned apartments are reportedly common, especially in neighborhoods with money-strapped immigrant and student populations. According to a recent study by the Pratt Center for Community Development, there are more than 100,000 of these units in the city.


Mexican Restuarant Opens In South Fordham

March 6, 2009

Rest Front

Last month, a little slice of Mexico opened on 183rd Street near Morris Avenue.

Clean, bright, and cozy, Restaurante Especialidades Mexicanas serves a multitude of traditional dishes – from salted beef burritos ($5.50) and chicken tacos ($2) to chiles rellenos (peppers stuffed with meat and cheese, $7.95) and huaraches (a Mexican version of pizza, $6.50).

While waiting for their food, patrons can play songs on the jukebox, watch TV (soccer games are often shown), or choose a fruit soda – the popular Mexican brands Boing and Jarritos are available – from the cooler. Cream colored tiles climb halfway up bright orange walls, where paintings of roosters look down over a handful of wooden tables.

Louis Martinez, one of the owners, opened the eatery in part because of the growing number of Mexicans living in the area, a result, he said, of rising rents in Brooklyn and Queens. 

But other local residents have also embraced the food. “A lot of Dominicans come in because they get bored with the[ir] food,” Martinez said, adding with a smile, “They like the tacos.”

Martinez said the restaurant’s cuisine identified with the cooking and culture of Puebla, a state in southern in Mexico widely accepted as the birthplace of “mole poblano” (a  rich, heavy sauce with flavors of chocolate, chili, cinnamon and clove). The menu features home-style cooking; dishes are always made from scratch. The tortillas, for example, are kneaded and baked daily on the premises.   

Louis Martinez

Growing up in Mexico, Martinez was surrounded by food – his mother ran a “tienda Mexicana” (a grocery store). But he didn’t flip a skillet until moving to New York at age 22. Since then he’s found it hard to get out of the kitchen, going from dish washer, to cook, to chef, to businessman.

Martinez and Restaurante Especialidades Mexicanas o-owner, Miguel Gallardo, met almost a decade ago while working as dish washers at Soho House New York, a high end hotel in Manhattan’s meatpacking district.

In 2001, Martinez took over Tacos y Salsa, a Mexican restaurant in Mott Haven. He sold the place in 2003 to move back to Mexico, but eventually returned to New York to collaborate with Gallardo.

The restaurant is open Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., and on weekends, too. They offer three daily specials, weekend specials, and free delivery. Soon, said Martinez, items like scrambled eggs, steak, chorizo (Spanish sausage), pancakes, and breakfast sandwiches, will be available at 7 a.m.

Martinez expected business to be slow the first few months, but has been pleasantly surprised. “Thank God we’re doing good,” he said.  And he’s hopeful the good times will continue. “Anything’s possible… we’re in New York!”


Editor’s Note: Restaurante Especialidades Mexicanas is located at 104 E. 183rdd St. For delivery, call (718) 484-0277.