As a college activist, Pedro Ramos C’87 learned the importance of tenacity. Now he’s using it in his drive as Philadelphia’s school board president to improve education opportunities for 213,000 children.

By Susan Lonkevich
Photography by Bill Cramer

It’s 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 doesn’t 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! They’re in President Hackney’s office. Now the hard part begins.

Community’s Schoolhouse

Today, at 35, Pedro Ramos C’87 laughs at the dramatics of it all—though not the social cause—as he recounts this emblematic story from his college days. As an undergraduate he spoke out on issues ranging from South African apartheid to the University’s recruitment of minority students, and aired his grievances in a column for The Daily Pennsylvanian calledMuevete,” 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 Ramos’s approach to social justice has tempered over the years—for one thing, he’s a lawyer now—his ideals haven’t. 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 L’71, the city’s 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 in August.

Photo by Bill Cramer

    As he invites me into his office at the Board of Education building on 21st Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Ramos seems busy—his phone rings constantly—but 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 I’m 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.
    “I’m a major Pedro fan—and I’m not alone,” says Debra Kahn, the city’s 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.He’s really smart and he’s really committed. He’s got good instincts, but he’s also thoughtful. I think all of those things add up to why he’s been very effective.”
    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 doors—even 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 district’s 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 go—like many priorities in the school district—Ramos says he believes they are improving.



Exposed to activism "since I was in diapers," Pedro Ramos is pictured above, at 13, leading a protest of bilingual-education cuts in city schools. He was also photographed in and around Conwell Middle Magnet School.



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