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A Tale of Two Alumns

When Jose Ortiz and Angela Wheat first met he was a student in her freshman history class at Freeport High School.

Years later, the two are sitting on the same side of the desk at Freeport High, where they are now both social studies teachers.

“It has been a seamless transition,” said Wheat, who teaches social studies grades 9-12, pre-AP 9 and AP World History grade 10. She also teaches a half-year course on genocide. “Jose had kept in touch with me so I was able to see him mature. He came prepared as a teacher. I am not meeting a new teacher but instead have gained a professional colleague.”

And a fellow Hofstra alum. Ortiz, MSEd ’13, credits Wheat, MSEd ’02, with inspiring him to become a teacher and consider Hofstra for graduate school. “The way [Ms. Wheat] made me understand history and care about my surroundings sparked something in me other subjects didn't. [She] told me about [School of Education Program Director, Secondary Social Studies Education] Alan Singer and about his dedication to make public schools into something better.”

Civics Lesson

After graduating from Hofstra, Ortiz began teaching social studies and economics at the Bushwick Academy of Urban Planning. He took on leadership roles right away, overseeing the yearbook and student government, and launching a project with seniors in his “Participation in Government” class to clean up Bushwick streets.

The project began early in the school year, when Ortiz connected his 12th graders with Generation Citizen, a national civics education program, and challenged them to think about problems in their Brooklyn neighborhood.

After surveying residents, the class quickly zeroed in on the cleanliness of the streets, which they believed was not getting the same attention as it was in other parts of the city.

“We found that people were unhappy and feeling discouraged by the state of the neighborhood,” a student said. “Why should some areas be cleaner than ours? They felt no one was paying attention.”

The students had found a cause, but they still needed to build a case.

So they researched how the city assesses street cleanliness, and they discovered that the scoring system for determining if a street or sidewalk is clean hasn’t changed since the mid-1970s, and the city uses black and white photos from that era for reference.

“We couldn’t believe it,” said another student. “Technology has advanced so much and to know that the city was using old pictures for something so important was surprising.” They took pictures of littered streets in their neighborhood and filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get the raw scores the city uses to rate cleanliness. In some cases, the streets of Bushwick are rated as clean, or cleaner, than those in more affluent neighborhoods like Greenwich Village and SoHo.

Empowered by their research and encouraged by Ortiz, the class wrote letters and emailed city officials about their concerns. Both City Councilman Antonio Reynoso, who represents Bushwick and chairs the council’s Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste, and Deputy Brooklyn Borough President Diana Reyna visited the class to hear the students present their case.

Ortiz taught his students the power – and responsibility – of advocacy.

Coming Home

Having made his mark at the Bushwick Academy, Ortiz returned to his alma mater, Freeport High School. He’s still pinching himself.

“Teaching at my alma mater feels surreal,” he said. “Walking through the halls I get a sense of enrichment knowing that I wasn't an A student or that scholar athlete, yet here I am trying to make a difference to the kids that resemble me and are going through similar struggles as I did. Everything affects me greatly here because the school is a part of me. So staying the long hours working the extra events isn't a job to me, it's my duty.

“We become teachers for the children,” Ortiz said, “and for the betterment of society.”

At Freeport High School, Ortiz teaches 11th grade U.S. History to transitional ESL students as well as ninth- and tenth-grade history. He is the co-advisor of the student government, co-advises the class of 2020 with fundraising and class activities, and he teaches Freeport’s twilight program, which helps prepare adult students for the TASC exam (formerly GED).

He’s also been an integral part of a program called “Breaking Borders.” The program is a collaboration with Syosset High School that allows students from both schools to meet and discuss topics such as race, gender, immigration, school security, gun control and the presidential election. The goal is to “break borders on Long Island and eventually throughout the country,” Ortiz said. He hopes to soon bring a Model UN club to Freeport.

Ortiz refers to Wheat as his “work mom,” but say they have begun to collaborate on projects. “This year we've combined our brains,” he said. “Although we teach different students, we plan similar lessons and think of engaging activities.”

And Wheat remains forever proud of her protégé.

“Last year I was completing my admin degree and needed to videotape a teacher for an observation. Jose volunteered and in this scenario I was an administrator,” Wheat said. "We both realized that we had moved from a student/teacher relationship into a professional relationship more seamlessly than most because our trust factor was already there.”

And the bilingual Ortiz has been Wheat’s translator during parent/teacher conferences. “He always tells the parents that he had me as a teacher and if their child is not being successful it is because they are not doing the work,” Wheat said. “Both the parents and I laugh when the student sheepishly agrees.”

“He has taken all of his life experiences,” Wheat said, “and combined them to become one of the most dynamic teachers in our department.”