Volume 76, Number 52 | May 23 -29, 2007

A Salute to Union Square

A Special Villager Supplement

Villager photo by Jennifer Weisbord

Washington Irving High School ninth graders putting in native New York plant species in Union Square Park last week.

Students give to and get back from the neighborhood

By Alyssa Giachino

While ninth graders from Washington Irving High School donned gardeners’ gloves and wielded hand spades last week to plant a native garden in Union Square Park, a class of the school’s seniors deliberated over the wisdom of using college loan money for textbooks versus a new pair of Nikes.

The two activities were organized by the Union Square Partnership’s Education Program, which for more than a decade has linked local businesses with Washington Irving students for mentoring, tutoring, internships and college preparation.

In a prelude to last Saturday’s “It’s My Park! Day,” which is organized by the city’s Parks Department, the Union Square Partnership brought students out last Wednesday and Friday to help plant a new section on the park’s west side, just north of the dog run, that will be dedicated to plant species indigenous to New York.

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

Washington Irving seniors attending a “financial literacy” workshop at Amalgamated Bank last Thursday.

“Curriculum-wise, the discussion of native plants really ties into what we’ve been talking about,” said teacher Sandra Tangney, whose Global History class learned about the arrival of Europeans to the American continent and the exploitation of natural resources that ensued.

“I learned that a lot of native plants aren’t here anymore,” said Tiffany, a ninth grader who lives in Brooklyn. “The Pilgrims traveled across the seas and I didn’t know they brought their own plants with them.”

A shriek erupted in near unison from a group of students kneeling in the dirt nearby where a disinterred earthworm wiggled in the soil.

A botanist from the city Parks Department, Marielle Anzelone, told students that many nonnative plant species are invasive.

“They’re like bullies in the forest,” she said. “They just take over.”

A lot of thought went into selecting plants that would thrive in the partial shade of the small glade and that could attract native insects and birds, Anzelone said.

“As you come through at different parts of the year, some of the leaves might be munched on, but that’s O.K.,” she said. “That means caterpillars are finding their way here, and caterpillars become butterflies. We’re all about butterflies.”

Jennifer Falk, the Union Square Partnership’s director, said the planting activity was “part of our overall effort to beautify Union Square Park and get the students involved in doing something that makes their community better.”

Tangney, the teacher, thought the activity also served to change the public’s perception of students.

“Instead of kids being known for all the trouble they can get into, it’s nice to see young teenage kids, of mixed ethnicity, coming in to do something good for the city,” she said.

Though the levels of violence at Washington Irving have dropped since their apex in 2003, last December, students associated with the school were involved in the stabbing death of a Brooklyn student during a rumble in the Union Square Greenmarket. In May, a student who had just transferred out of the school was stabbed, not fatally, a few blocks away when he returned to Union Square one morning for some reason.

Graduation rates at Washington Irving continue to lag behind the state goal of at least 55 percent. Only 48 percent of Latino students graduate. Latinos make up 61 percent of the school’s enrollment. African-Americans, who are 32 percent of the student body, have a 50 percent graduation rate.

Tanya Navas, the Partnership’s education director, said the wide variety of programs they offer aim to expose students to different career opportunities and positive role models.

“It really opens their eyes to a wider range of seeing, a wider range of thinking and many opportunities they would never have thought of before,” she said. She added that they advise the students: “You don’t have to be following the one path you think will lead to success, there are many paths and you just need to focus on what is best for you.”

During their senior year, students are focused on preparing college applications and applying for scholarships, Navas said. Now, as their graduation date approaches, the students participate in workshops to build practical skills.

Twelve seniors participated in a “financial literacy” workshop last Thursday, hosted by Amalgamated Bank at 10 E. 14th St. They talked about the disadvantages of racking up ATM charges, the risky seductive power of credit cards and weighing needs versus wants.

“I have to be looking fresh with new Nikes, that’s a necessity right there,” said Pierre Valentine mischievously, wearing a flashy tie and suit jacket over baggy black jeans with frayed cuffs. Besides shoes, he ranked housing, healthcare and food as top priorities.

Valentine said he plans to study political science at John Jay College, at CUNY, with a second major in either philosophy or psychology. He said he already helps his mom to balance her checkbook and that she has tried to prepare him to manage his own money.

“I’m hoping not to go bankrupt after college,” he said.

“Most high school kids are woefully undereducated when it comes to finance,” said Peter Mosbacher, a senior vice president at Amalgamated. “It’s a good opportunity to start getting ready and learning about the world of money as they go to college.

“The timing is right,” he added. “They’re going to be bombarded with offers from credit card companies, student loans. They’ll have to make intelligent choices.”

More than 90 percent of students at Washington Irving are eligible for free lunch, and an estimated 70 percent to 80 percent of their families receive public assistance.

Michael Gianakos, the Partnership’s college and career coordinator, said the workshop was particularly important for these students because “a lot of them are the first in their family to graduate high school, let alone college. They don’t necessarily have someone at home that can talk about having a savings account, a credit card.”


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