Pedro Ramos reveals what he'd do on Philadelphia's School Reform Commission

Pedro Ramos: "Reviews are needed. . . . Finances, yes, but also . . . ethics and integrity."
Pedro Ramos: "Reviews are needed. . . . Finances, yes, but also . . . ethics and integrity."
Posted: October 03, 2011

Pedro Ramos, a lawyer and partner in the firm Trujillo Rodriguez & Richards L.L.C. in Philadelphia, is a former city solicitor and managing director. He served on the Philadelphia School District's Board of Education from 1995 to 2001, including two years as president.

In June, Gov. Corbett nominated Ramos to the School Reform Commission. Still awaiting state Senate confirmation, Ramos, 46, spoke to staff writer Melissa Dribben about his prospective role as a member of the commission, which has had quite a stormy year.

Question: What will be your top priorities as an SRC member?

Pedro Ramos: I have made a list for myself. I like to make lists.

First, re-establishing the oversight role of the SRC. The difference between the school board and the SRC is that the commission has the extra responsibility for financial oversight.

Second, stabilizing the district's finances. It's no secret that the district's current spending level, even after cuts, is unsustainable. You have to figure out if there are things you can't afford to do because you have things you have to do.

Third, earning back the public trust. Without that, it will be hard to do everything else.

Fourth, establishing a leadership team. We have a tendency to look for personalities, but in an organization as big as the School District, you really have to have a senior person with a track record as someone who can effectively lead.

And fifth, increasing safe, good-quality educational opportunities for all Philadelphia children. Note that I said increasing. You get lots of discussion about what to do with chronically poor-performing schools. There's not much discussion about how to be a lot more proactive to expand the opportunities in schools that do succeed.

Q: Going back to the third item on your list. The SRC and the district have taken a beating this year. How do you propose to restore public trust?

Ramos: You do it one day at a time, through what you say and do and don't do. As cliched as it is, actions speak louder than words.

A lot of reviews are needed within the district. Finances, yes, but also the standard practices regarding ethics and integrity. We may want to invite an outside critique.

Q: Studies show that the dropout rate is especially high among black and Latino boys in Philadelphia and elsewhere. What should be done to change that?

Ramos: Oh. That question obviously hits close to home. I grew up in North Philadelphia in a Puerto Rican and African American neighborhood. My dad was a maintenance man with a second-grade education. My mom had a sixth-grade education and stayed home raising five kids.

What I've learned through my membership on several task forces is that if you have a robust system for monitoring the factors that indicate students are at risk for dropping out, you can reduce the rate.

We call them the ABCs - attendance, behavior, and core success, in other words, grades.

But there are bigger issues. When you look at the data from 2009, gender is the No. 1 thing that jumps out at you. Across ethnicities, boys drop out at a much higher rate than girls. For Philadelphia ninth graders who entered high school in 2003, the dropout rates were: Latino males, 51 percent; African American males, 43 percent; white males, 39 percent; Latina females, 36 percent; white females 32 percent; African American females, 30 percent; Asian males, 29 percent; and Asian females, 20 percent.

There are folks who say part of the problem is that schools deliver instruction in a way that is biased against boys. We need our schools to be more diverse thematically and in how they operate. Instruction is about motivating young people while in competition for their attention, and the way that schools have gone about trying to do that hasn't taken into account different learning styles that may be culturally or gender-specific.

Q: Your two daughters, both now in college, attended Masterman and Central High Schools, two of Philadelphia's best public schools. What advice would you give to parents struggling to decide whether to leave the city, send their children to private schools, or send them to public schools?

Ramos: If you find a school that's right for your child, there's an enormous advantage in today's world for an academically prepared student with the exposure and experiences that come with city life.

I would encourage parents to look around first, rather than assume that there are only two or three so-called good schools.

Q: Such as?

Ramos: I would name a few, but I'm bound to get in trouble for leaving some out.

Q: You know what to expect about the demands of your imminent, unpaid position on the SRC. How do you balance work, family, and a volunteer position that functions like a full-time job?

Ramos: All three are critically important, and I can't afford to screw up any one of them. On the family front, though, I'm only months away from being an empty-nester. The only indulgence my wife and I have are movies and hamburgers.

Q: What was your least favorite subject in school?

Ramos: Chemistry.

Q: Need you say more?

Ramos: I've been told my teacher was an idiot.


Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.

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