Pedro Ramos


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As a Latino activist at Penn, he learned how to deal with bureaucracy. Its a skill that has come in handy for the first Latino and youngest-ever head of the Philadelphia school board.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

 

It almost reads like something out of Horatio Alger. Kid from a poor but proud family applies himself, does well in school and lands in the Ivy League. From there, the story usually goes like this: Graduates from college, becomes a successful lawyer, makes mucho bucks, moves to a country manse (or at least a big house in the burbs), hangs out with the elite.

This is where Pedro Ramos (C87) parts company. Not that he has not done well for himself. But he still lives in the community where he grew up the area around Fifth and Girard on the edge of Northern Liberties.

He has also been able to do well while remaining civic-minded. Its one reason he went to work for the old-line Philadelphia law firm of Ballard, Spahr, Andrews and Ingersoll, which encourages its attorneys to get involved in community affairs. And its why, when his oldest daughter reached school age, he thought about getting involved in school affairs.

But he hadnt banked on getting involved so deeply so soon. However, his community had other ideas, and as a result, he is now president of the Board of Public Education, which oversees the Philadelphia public schools.

Ramos journey from barrio to boardroom is both inspiring and somewhat incredible. So the logical first question to ask him is:

Q. Do you ever wake up in the morning and pinch yourself to make sure this isnt a dream?
A.
[laughs] Yes. I must confess that Ive had similar feelings throughout life where I felt that I wasnt really sure how I got there.

Q. So how did you wind up at Penn?
A.
I applied to all the schools that my neighborhood friends were applying to, and the day after applications were due, my high school counselor called me into her office and scolded me for not applying to Ivy League schools. She called Dean [of Admissions Willis J.] Stetson, requested an extension and made me get the application out the next day.

Q. What was it like arriving on campus that first year?
A.
Penn was my first contact with mainstream American society. I had grown up in a neighborhood that was all Latino and African American, some Anglos, and all poor, and we were doing pretty well compared to a lot of other people because my father had been working in the same place for a long time; we had some stability.
   In the summer of 1983, I pulled up for the first time for the pre-freshman program, and then, my fathers green 1974 Chevy Impala station wagon stood out. It was the first time that I started to appreciate how relatively low-income my family is.
   Because of the strong foundation that my high school had provided, I really didnt feel threatened academically. Culturally and socially, it was a shock to the system. Ive described arriving at Penn now on several occasions as landing on Mars. It was an entirely alien culture, environment, language not in terms of English proficiency but in terms of names of prep schools that rattled off of peoples tongues and organizations and clubs that Id never heard of that everybody seemed to know when I arrived.
   I have to say that that changed with time. I did find a community at Penn. One of the advantages of being in a large institution is that among a lot of people, you find people with similar interests.
   I helped start the Latin American Living-Learning Program, wrote the memo describing it, pitched it, and after it was approved, we literally called students and recruited a director. And that was a very powerful part of my experience at Penn.

Q. Have you always been interested in public education?
A.
As far back as I can remember, I was around community activists and leaders, and theres never been a time where education hasnt been at the top of the list in the Latino community. There was a picture as part of a photo exhibit at the Congreso de Latinos Unidos, this picture of a huge protest in front of the Board of Education. And I was holding a banner in front of it. I was about 13 or 14, I hadnt even remembered that, but it was clearly me.
   After law school, I did some work with Ballard, Spahr, and have been at Ballard ever since. So I was exceeding expectations as a young lawyer and still found time to get involved in community activities. By living in the community, I could reconnect with all those people Ive known all my life.
   A Board [of Education] vacancy was scheduled to open in December of 1995. At that time, my older daughter was scheduled to start kindergarten in September, and my wife and I, both products of public schools, had determined that we wanted to stay committed to public schools, but not without some apprehension over the challenges facing the school district.
   It so happened that as my wife and I are thinking about these things within our family, my friends in the community organizations are plotting to draft me onto the school board. [laughs] I thought they were crazy, but I had no objection to it.
   These leaders mounted quite an effort, barraging Mayor Rendell with all kinds of letters and calls, and it also attracted the attention of then-City Council President John Street, and he was very encouraging, [saying] that I really shouldnt undersell myself, that he thought Id make a good school board member.
   There was certainly a very high level of interest in the Latino community in continuing to have representation [on the school board, whose first Latino member stepped down in 1995]. And at that point I had also been serving on Congresos board for a few years, and I was on at least one or two others at that point.
   I also saw it as a critical time for public education in the city. I think were still in the middle of [a period where] at the end we will determine whether this is a school district that only serves those that cant get out or whether it will be a system that will let young families stay in the city and attract opportunities to people all over the city.

Q. From what I read in the press, there appears to be a high-stakes game of chicken going on over school funding.
A.
I dont think its chicken. There is a structural flaw in how schools in the state of Pennsylvania are funded, and the impact of that flaw is most acute in Philadelphia and other poor urban and rural areas of the state.
   What were doing now is keeping our promise to not cut school-based programs, making every effort to keep schools open, making every effort to find savings through cost reduction in the school district budget, trying to advance the ball academically and to continue to build and improve relationships at the state and local level with the elected officials that make those resource decisions.

Q. Has any of your Penn experience served you well in your current position?
A.
I only say this in the most complimentary way it was my earliest lesson in learning to deal with and move bureaucracies. And academically [it] provided me a terrific foundation. And in addition to meeting my wife [Rafaela Torres (C89)], I met a whole lot of friends that Ive kept over the years, people you can always turn to for honest advice and sometimes technical assistance.

On the cover: Ramos on the street where he lives, with his daughters Catalina (right) and Isabel.

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Originally published on April 20, 2000