The Education of Pedro Ramos, continued

Photo by Bill Cramer


Growing Up
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 teacher’s edition, and that was my book.”
    Later, Ramos 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 didn’t 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.”
    After considering 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 Philadelphia’s prestigious, public Central High School where he was surrounded by college-bound classmates. When guidance counselors found that he hadn’t 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 for him.
    Financial aid made Penn affordable, but Ramos still experienced a culture shock when he got here. He recalls riding to campus in his family’s 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 wasn’t exactly Minority Scholars Weekend,” he says, referring to the recruitment event that had initially encouraged him to enroll.
    Growing up, 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.”
    Ramos, an 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 C’89, whom he met at a Latino-student event on campus—they still can’t agree on which one—is also active in the ALA.)
    Campus organizing came naturally to him, Ramos says, because, “I’ve 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.
    While making 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.
    On alternate 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 University’s 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.” Penn’s students, he went on to write, “do little more than whine.”
    Today he coyly describes the student protests he participated in as “unscheduled meetings” with the administration—which “Sheldon Hackney and I have been able to joke about since.”
    “Obviously I would have preferred not to have students sitting in my office and bringing the University to a standstill,” says Dr. Hackney Hon’93, now a Penn history professor, speaking by phone from the relative serenity of Martha’s 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 C’70 Gr’79 [director of Penn’s 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.”
    Ramos continued 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 week—and 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 capitol.
    The nine-member 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.
    Despite the 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 C’01. “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 policy—never implemented—on 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.
    “I 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 people’s 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 don’t ever say we don’t have Spanish documents. We do.’ They were so impressed with his diligence. That’s something I’ve seen not just with those mothers but with basically everybody he comes in contact with.”

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