Hustle Culture: Education Inequities Meet the Best of the Bronx

Transformational change starts from the ground up.

Located in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, C.S. 55 services over 700 students in Pre-K to 5th Grade. This school is in the poorest congressional district in the country and has one of the highest crime rates in New York City. In under-resourced communities, families are challenged to meet essential needs—*food, shelter, safety, health, and access—and education becomes less of a priority.  Luis Torres, principal of C.S. 55 explains: 

“It’s not because they don’t value education…. As a school, we’re in a unique place because we try to address those five needs*, so the families can then focus on education.”

As president-elect of the New York City Elementary Schools Association, Torres is looking forward to supporting principals across all of New York. He emphasizes that his community has always come together to support one another in the face of hard challenges: 

“. . . I grew up in that environment, so I understand what it was to live in it… As educators and leaders of our communities, we have to find ways to address those five basic needs*, or else we are never going to get to educating our children the right way.

While the pandemic added another challenge, in another light, it made the ongoing inequities in the community more visible. Principal Torres saw that negative as a positive and a catalyst for change. 

“The pandemic was nothing new for me… The lack of resources, health issues, wellness issues, all of that has existed ever since I’ve been here and before I’ve been here. … a lot of the inequities became more evident, so people were forced to take action on things that they have ignored for years.”

When students were unable to assemble in classrooms, reaching them online seemed the solution. The digital divide had to be bridged before students could gain access to their teachers and peers, however.  Principal Torres states that in effect, it “took the pandemic to get a device in every child’s hands.”  

The next hurdle was the lack of Wi-Fi access, which many families did not have. As a first step, Torres worked with the local cable provider to deliver education programming to families without Wi-Fi access. 

Necessity, his own life experience, and a commitment to do whatever it takes to improve education equity in the community drives Principal Torres to constantly find solutions where none seem apparent. “I will hustle and beg if I need something for the school. …If I need resources, I’m going to do everything in my power to get those resources.”

Mr. Torres reflected on the cycle of poverty his community is so often mired in and characterized those inequities in stark terms: “I honestly feel that the community where I work was created with one purpose and that’s to feed the prison system. And when I started to understand that I said that my goal in life would be to open schools and close prisons.” 

When asked how he intends to use his platform as president-elect of New York elementary schools to effect change, Torres responded: “I want to do a lot of work around creating partnerships with schools because a lot of the issues that we have is that the schools don’t have the resources to truly meet (the needs of) their community.”

To learn more, don’t miss this week’s episode of The Learning Can’t Wait Podcast hosted by Hayley Spira-Bauer.  Go in-depth with Luis Torres, principal of C.S. 55, to learn more about the innovative programs and strategies he has implemented in the South Bronx community he serves.