Education of Pedro Ramos,
and Running Home
The youngest son of Puerto Rican immigrants with
second- and sixth- grade educations, Ramos grew up in a largely Latino
and African-American neighborhood in North Philadelphia. At his overcrowded
elementary school, he immediately took to reading. The books were sequenced
according to difficulty, and Ramos recalls reaching Book K when he was
in the fourth grade. No one had ever gotten to Book K, he says. After
a few days, my teacher was able to track down a teachers edition, and
that was my book.
was bussed to Conwell Middle School, a racially diverse magnet school
outside the barrio. The teachers were wonderful to him. The older white
kids who hung around the block in the afternoon were not. Ramos recalls
being chased and beaten up routinely after softball practice. I didnt
ask why, he jokes, but assumes it was because, We were a little group
of kids in little softball uniforms in what was probably seen as a nerdy
school in the neighborhood, because it was full of minority students.
the merits of continuing his education at a neighborhood high school (not
the least of which was a shorter run home), he instead went on to Philadelphias
prestigious, public Central High School where he was surrounded by college-bound
classmates. When guidance counselors found that he hadnt bothered applying
to any Ivy League schools his senior year, they went ahead and sent in
forms to several places, including Penn, to arrange deadline extensions
aid made Penn affordable, but Ramos still experienced a culture shock
when he got here. He recalls riding to campus in his familys green 74
Chevy Impala, while other, predominantly white students were pulling up
in BMWs and Jaguars, and feeling like he had landed on Mars. It wasnt
exactly Minority Scholars Weekend, he says, referring to the recruitment
event that had initially encouraged him to enroll.
Ramos says, We were relatively well off in our community. My father had
a steady job [as a maintenance man] and health benefits and all that.
And even though we had lived in public housing for part of that time,
we never felt like we were financially distressed. At Penn, however,
You certainly felt the disparities of wealth and class.
urban-studies major, soon found his niche. He became a campus activist,
leading ACELA, the Latino student association, and the United Minorities
Council in pressing for more minority programs, faculty and students at
Penn. (As an alumnus, he remains interested in such issues, serving
as a member of the James Brister Society and on the board of the Association
of Latino Alumni. His wife, Rafaela Torres C89, whom he met at a Latino-student
event on campusthey still cant agree on which oneis also active in
came naturally to him, Ramos says, because, Ive been around activists
since I was in diapers. His older brother Juan, now 48, was a vocal organizer
in the Latino community. As a kid, Ramos would letter the protest signs,
providing free child labor for some of the many community groups his
brother was involved in. I thought it was kind of cool hanging out with
those guys, so I just did it. Later, at 13, Ramos marched to protest
bilingual-education cuts in Philadelphia.
waves at Penn, he says, he learned a useful lesson in dealing with bureaucracies:
Tenacity is worth a lot. Ramos eventually collaborated with the administration
to start the Latin American Living Learning program, a residential, cultural-awareness
program that still exists in one of the college houses on campus.
Wednesdays, he challenged the status quo with his DP column. Ironically,
Ramos says, I spent most of my time criticizing the admissions office
in their minority recruitment, when it was Dean of Admissions Lee Stetson
who had persuaded him to come to Penn. In another column, entitled Cowardice
and Deceit, Ramos lambasted everyone from the oligarchic and greedy
trustees who had not yet divested the Universitys holdings from firms
with South African ties, to the faculty who failed to put its money where
its mouth is by transferring their pension funds over to a South Africa-free
option. Penns students, he went on to write, do little more than whine.
coyly describes the student protests he participated in as unscheduled
meetings with the administrationwhich Sheldon Hackney and I have been
able to joke about since.
I would have preferred not to have students sitting in my office and bringing
the University to a standstill, says Dr. Hackney Hon93, now a Penn history
professor, speaking by phone from the relative serenity of Marthas Vineyard.
As I recall, they were engaged in an issue, and serious about it, and
rather honest. And he [Ramos] was quite good. And the trustees eventually
agreed. Hackney goes on to point out that Ramos is not the first undergraduate
radical to have turned into a civic activist, and, therefore, into a terrific
citizen. Ira Harkavy C70 Gr79 [director of Penns Center for Community
Partnerships] led the sit-ins of 69 and 70 about the war and then got
a Ph.D. at Penn and stayed, and has been a wonderful influence on the
city. I would put Pedro Ramos in the same category.
his activism at the University of Michigan Law School and, as a young
attorney with the service-oriented Philadelphia firm Ballard, Spahr, Andrews
& Ingersoll, channeled his energies into joining the school board.
Since becoming president, board business consumes about 90 percent of
his work weekand a good deal of his free time. Ramos consults his palm-sized
personal-organizer to give examples of his hectic schedule, filled with
meetings, speaking engagements, retirement parties and trips to the state
school board governs the operations of the district and its schools. Among
other duties, it buys textbooks, maintains buildings, hires teachers,
adopts budgets and interacts with the public. It appoints a superintendent
of schools to enforce its rules and prepare guidelines supporting the
educational mission of the district.
demands of his position, Ramos still made time to supervise an internship
with the board of education last school year for urban-studies major Jeff
Camarillo C01. It was by far and away one of the most valuable learning
experiences I have had at Penn, says Camarillo. He let me sit in on
personal meetings in his office and, at every opportunity, he would pull
me aside to show me the role of this job. Ramos even put the student
in charge of researching the history and status of a decades-old school-district
policynever implementedon the teaching of African-American history.
Camarillo came up with recommendations and will keep working with Ramos
this school year to help see them through.
think he is doing a phenomenal job, the senior adds. He is able to embrace
all people, which is one thing that is so important to being a dynamic
leader. Camarillo says he often saw peoples countenances change as they
dealt with Ramos. There was a group of women with lawyers who came in
to meet him to share horrific stories of special-education problems in
the district. One Spanish-speaking parent had been given a document in
English and told by a school employee that it was not available in Spanish.
Ramos, in response to that, put the meeting on hold, called the person
responsible for this and told them, Please dont ever say we dont have
Spanish documents. We do. They were so impressed with his diligence.
Thats something Ive seen not just with those mothers but with basically
everybody he comes in contact with.
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