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Protesters Say Dogfighting Is the Pits

October 1, 2009


About 20 animal-right protesters held a rally on Sept. 29 opposite the Bronx Supreme Court on East 161st Street, to bring attention to the trial that was due to start that morning, involving five men charged with dogfighting offenses.

The men were arrested in June 2008, when police raided a suspected dogfighting ring at a house on East 179th Street near Morris Avenue. Sixteen pit bulls were rescued, though one died shortly afterwards from its injuries.

“It’s despicable,” said Laura Kramer, a protestor from the non-profit group United Action for Animals (UAA). “If you can’t treat an animal with dignity, how do you expect to treat people, a child?”

“This stems from ignorance and machismo,” said Jennifer Panton, UAA’s president.

Attempting to garner a reaction from the public, the group held signs with graphic images of badly bitten dogs.

“This case is extremely important, that’s why we’re here,” said Debra Martensen from Franklin Lakes Animal Hospital in New Jersey. “We’re going to keep watching. I hope they get the book thrown at them for what they did to those poor animals.”

“Hopefully, neighbors of dogfighters can feel confident about taking action [as a result of this case],” added Belisa Vranich, a renowned psychologist and author, and a member of UAA.

Holding a small pug, Vranich said pit bulls are not the only dogs affected by the crime. Other pets are also at risk, as many are snatched for bait. Martensen said dogfights can lead to attacks on people. Pit bulls are not aggressive by nature; they become so through fighting, she said.

Of the dogs rescued last year, at least five were euthanatized because they were deemed dangerous by the city’s Center for Animal Care & Control, according to the UAA. Of the others, some have been successfully adopted, while some are still waiting for a loving family to take them in.

Three of the men, including the alleged ringleader Alexander Estephane, who lives in the house that was raided, face felony charges for organizing the fights. The two others have been charged with misdemeanors for watching.

To the frustration of the protesters, the trial didn’t get going that morning after all. A judge rescheduled it for Oct. 19 because a defense attorney was ill. “It’s frustrating to being everyone out here, and it’s disheartening,” Panton said.


School Moves Up From Basement to High Rise

October 1, 2009

While stuck in a Manhattan College basement, the Jonas Bronck Academy became one of the most successful middle school programs in the northwest Bronx.

But since its inception 12 years ago, the school community has longed for a space of its own.

This July, however, the academy moved from its Riverdale basement to one of the classiest office buildings in the entire borough. It’s not the ideal place for a school, but the academy’s new home is a vast improvement in many ways.

The Jonas Bronck Academy now lives on the newly-renovated fourth and fifth floors of the Fordham Place office tower, on the corner of Webster Avenue and Fordham Road.

Big picture windows offer sweeping views of the sky and neighborhood. From the principal’s office, the view stretches all the way to Manhattan. Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada Jr. recently opened an office on the seventh floor of the building, saying he wanted to have the best district office in the Bronx.

On a tour of the academy’s new space, Principal Donalda Chumney called it, with a laugh, “our transition to greatness.”

Jonas Bronck Academy

Staffers marvel at what they used to do without: a principal’s office, a nurse’s office, a kitchen in the cafeteria, a gym, art and music rooms, even a custodian and school safety officers. The new space has locker rooms and a teachers’ lounge. Smart boards with internet access are standard in all the classrooms. In the science lab, the equipment is so new the science teacher hasn’t yet been trained to use it.

At 44,000 square feet, the new space is 10 times bigger than where they previously called home and has allowed the school to expand to 152 students and add new programs. Local Councilman Oliver Koppell’s office funds an after-school music program in the brand new music room, which has three separate practice rooms. For the first time, the school can offer Spanish, which all students now take. A parent resource center is outfitted with computers parents can use any time.

Still, there are issues. The school doesn’t have access to any outdoor space and sits at one of the busiest corners in the Bronx. But the school has moved closer to most of its students, who live largely within walking distance of the new location, Chumney says.

Regardless of the environment, Jonas Bronck, a school founded by local Bronx parents seeking a small, progressive middle school, remains focused on rigorous academia. As a self-proclaimed “college preparatory school,” Chumney says her goal is to keep “expectations really high in terms of homework completion and participation.”

Students wear uniforms, and attendance is highly emphasized. In the brand new cafeteria, tables are named after colleges. Every student has an assigned seat, sitting with their “advisories,” groups of 10 that meet each morning under the mentorship of a teacher. This, Chumney says, has cut down on cliques.

“I ate my lunch in the bathroom for the first two weeks of eighth grade,” she says. “So I decided that when I ruled the world, everyone would have assigned seats.”

A recent graduate of the city’s Leadership Academy, Chumney is in her second year as principal here. Previously, she taught special education and then was hired to found the inclusion program for special education students at the Bronx High School for the Arts.

She knows her kids by name. She is liberal with hugs and high-fives, but a stickler for breaches of dress code . “[They're] the best kids in the Bronx for sure – easily,” she says.

She may be right. The school has earned A’s (the highest mark) on its Department of Education progress reports for the past three years. In the annual parent surveys since 2007, over 90 percent of the parents declared themselves “satisfied or very satisfied” with the school.

Students apply to the school as part of the middle school selection process. Prospective parents are required to attend an information session, and staff interviews each student. Chumney says the school doesn’t look at test scores or report cards when evaluating applicants, but quality attendance records are crucial.

“[We] look at a child’s willingness to be part of the school community and parents’ willingness to abide by school norms,” Chumney says. According to parent coordinator Marcella Torres, 180 applicants vied for 100 slots in the 6th and 7th grades.

Those who got in seem pleased. “I love it, it’s nice,” said 7th grader Besnik, 11. “I like the space.”


Bronx Businesses Give $ to School Libraries

October 1, 2009

Fordham Road BID

An unprecedented number of Bronx businesses are participating in this year’s Shop for Public Schools program. The Fordham Road Business Improvement District (BID) and 15 stores have raised over $2,000 this year.

Caroline Kennedy, daughter of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Vice Chair of the Fund for Public Schools, accepted a check from the BID on Sept. 25 at Modell’s Sporting Goods on Fordham Road.

The Shop for Public Schools program encourages businesses to donate to the Fund for Public Schools, which helps pay for improvements at school libraries across the city.

Business owners can participate in the Shop for Public Schools program in one of two ways: by giving a flat contribution, or by allocating a percentage of the sales revenue during the week of Oct. 1 through 8. In order to boost contributions and because most Bronx retailers chose to make flat contributions, the BID matched contributions of up to $200 to the program.


Muslims Mark the End of Ramadan

October 1, 2009


Local Muslims turned out in force on Sunday, Sept. 20, to celebrate Eid ul-Fitr at Mount Hope Masjid, a mosque on Mount Hope Place, just east of Jerome Avenue.

The day began with a 9 a.m. prayer, followed by a sermon, followed by food and socializing.  Approximately 600 people were in attendance, according to the mosque’s assistant iman, Abdul Muhaimin Ladan. Most were of West African origin, a reflection of the local population, but there were also Bangladeshis and Arabs, the iman said. The women and the children worshipped inside the mosque, the men outside on the street.

Other Bronx mosques – the borough is home to nearly 30, says Laden, up from just seven a decade ago – held similar celebrations.

Eid ul-Fitr (Arabic for “The Feast of the Fast-Breaking”) marks the end of the month of Ramadan, during which Muslims fast, ask for forgiveness for past sins, pray for guidance, and give to the needy.

In the Bronx and throughout the city there’s a growing movement to add the holiday (Eid ul-Fitr is actually a three-day holiday but the first day is the most significant) to the public school calendar, as well as another day, Eid al-Adha.

Those in favor say schools close on Christian and Jewish holidays, so why not Muslim ones too. They say Muslim students shouldn’t have to choose between going to school and being with their families. Those against – including Mayor Bloomberg – say students need more classroom time, not less.

Photos and slideshow by Adi Talwar

Foster Defeats Sierra

October 1, 2009

Councilwomen Helen Diane Foster defeated Carlos Sierra in the Sept. 15 Democratic primary in the 16th Council District, which covers the southwest Bronx.

Foster, who’s been in office since 2002, captured 3,090 votes (63 percent of the total) to her opponent’s 1,801 (37 percent).

During the campaign, Sierra questioned Foster’s work ethic and said she was rarely seen in the community. He said he would be a “full-time council member.”

Sierra got close, but ultimately the fighting talk didn’t pay off, and Foster won at a canter.


Crime Watch, October 2009

October 1, 2009

Local Officer Dies of Heart Attack

Raymond Rodriguez, a police officer with the 46th Precinct, died of a suspected heart attack on Sept. 16, while on duty at the Station House at 2120 Ryer Avenue.

The precinct’s commanding officer, Inspector Kevin Harrington, said Rodriguez was a “very likeable guy” who “will be missed by everyone.”

Rodriguez was 42. He is survived by his wife and four children.


Man Stabbed to Death; Girlfriend Arrested

Carlos Benitez, a 53-year-old University Heights resident, was found stabbed to death on Sept. 21, inside the room he rented at 13 Buchanan Place.

Police arrested Benitez’s girlfriend, Tanya Garcia, 32, and charged her with murder and criminal possession of a weapon.  According to news reports, the couple had a history of domestic disturbances.


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