a college activist, Pedro Ramos C87 learned the importance of
tenacity. Now hes using it in his drive as Philadelphias
school board president to improve education opportunities for 213,000
by Bill Cramer
Its springtime 1986.
A group of about 100 students are
plotting to take over College Hall to prod the University into divesting
its monies from companies doing business in South Africa. Some stealth
is in order, because the administration knows that a protest is
in the works. It just doesnt know where.
The students decide
to create a diversion: First, they run through Houston Hall; then,
while their accomplices hold open the doors, they swarm in through
the back of College Hall.
It works! Theyre
in President Hackneys office. Now the hard part begins.
at 35, Pedro Ramos C87 laughs at the
dramatics of it allthough not the social causeas he recounts this
emblematic story from his college days. As an undergraduate he spoke
out on issues ranging from South African apartheid to the Universitys
recruitment of minority students, and aired his grievances in a
column for The Daily Pennsylvanian called Muevete,
which is Spanish for Move. One of my college friends has
since told me he thought I was angry all the time, Ramos says.
I think it was just a bad picture in the paper.
But while Ramoss
approach to social justice has tempered over the yearsfor
one thing, hes a lawyer nowhis ideals havent. As the first Latino
president of the Philadelphia Board of Education, his activism has
merely taken on another form. This time, he is fighting to turn
public education into a public priority.
The two weeks before
my first interview with Ramos at the beginning of the summer had
been unusually turbulent within the school district, which, with
213,000 students, is the largest and one of the most financially-strapped
in Pennsylvania. During that time, Dr. David Hornbeck L71, the
citys superintendent of schools, resigned after six years on the
job, explaining that he lacked support from Harrisburg lawmakers
for his ambitious (and costly) education-reform plan, called Children
Achieving. The Board of Education was forced to adopt a budget with
an $80 million deficit and $30 million in cuts to keep local schools
running. And the Philadelphia teachers union had authorized its
leaders to call a strike, if necessary, when its contract expired
As he invites me
into his office at the Board of Education building on 21st Street
and Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Ramos seems busyhis phone rings
constantlybut cool-headed. I like working through difficult situations,
he explains. And I owe a lot to my Philadelphia public education,
so if I am going to work hard at anything, I feel this is what Im
supposed to be doing now.
Judging by the opinions
of those around him, he is adept at this role. In the volatile realm
of urban-school politics, Ramos has succeeded in getting along with
and earning the respect of just about everyone while taking a stand
on the educational issues that are important to him and critical
to the city.
Im a major Pedro
fanand Im not alone, says Debra Kahn, the citys education
secretary, who sat on the school board five years ago when Ramos
first came on. There were so many receptions held in his honor after
he was voted president for the year 2000 by the board last December
that she had to start turning them down. Hes really smart
and hes really committed. Hes got good instincts, but hes also
thoughtful. I think all of those things add up to why hes been
When the district
installed metal detectors in its high schools following a shooting,
for instance, Ramos insisted that the security measures apply to
everyone who walked through those doorseven school board
members. I thought it was at least fairer from a student perspective
and made it more like an airport or a courthouse, and less like
a prison, he explains.
On December 7, the
morning after he was elected president, Ramos began making the rounds
of the General Assembly in Harrisburg, trying to improve the districts
embattled relationship with state legislators to whom they must
appeal each year for funds to help pay for the operations of the
district, which this fiscal year come with a pricetag of $1.59 billion.
There is no question
that there is a lot of historical baggage between many parts of
the state and Philadelphia, Ramos says, pausing, as he often does,
to choose his words carefully. Some of it is political and some
of it is perception. Some of it are biases that go both ways. But
I think there is no substitute for personal interaction. While
communications between Harrisburg and Philadelphia have a long way
to golike many priorities in the school districtRamos says he
believes they are improving.