SRC chief learned early to put education first

Posted: September 24, 2013

School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro A. Ramos, 48, must lead Philadelphia's school system through its worst fiscal crisis in memory - $220 million deficit, thousands laid off, barely enough money to operate the schools this year. Most counselors, secretaries, and vice principals will be missing. No wonder SRC meetings are loud and tense.

Question: How do you restrain your temper when people are yelling at you?

Answer: There's nothing to restrain.

Q: Forgive my disbelief.

A: I learned pretty early on to listen while people are yelling at you. So you do have to realize where that's coming from. Very often it's the exasperation of a parent, or an educator, or a taxpayer, or a neighbor of a school. You have to understand why they are there. And you have to be comfortable that you're trying to do the best you can with what you have to work with.

Q: You are a product of Philadelphia's public schools. Why are they such a mess?

A: The School District's current situation would be tough under any circumstances, but it is made much tougher by the fact that prior leadership teams at times were afraid of making unpopular decisions in a timely way. Personnel and financial matters never get better with time.

Q: You seem to be a glutton for punishment - your second stint running the schools and two high-profile posts in city government. Why do you do it?

A: My parents came from Puerto Rico to Philadelphia in 1953. Dad had a second-grade education; my mother had a sixth-grade education. We lived in public housing. We benefited from food stamps. I was the youngest of five, so the only real capital my parents had to give me were values, work ethic, and insistence that I put education first.

Q: Then what?

A: Education has been the route by which I've been able to move toward the dreams my parents had for all their kids and, frankly . . . to a position of privilege in one generation. There's a sense of duty, service, debt that has come with those opportunities.

Q: You've been spending a lot of time at Hispanic Heritage Month activities.

A: It's always interesting to me that the Latino community in Philadelphia . . . hasn't developed the critical mass of middle class the way New York has.

Q: Why is that?

A: I think there was a time when coalitions mattered more. People across different neighborhoods and backgrounds would realize they had to work together. Gerrymandering has made coalitions less necessary. It's easier for people to get isolated. I wouldn't say it is just Latinos that are isolated. The poorest Philadelphians are increasingly isolated.

Q: Did you ever get in trouble in school?

A: I was a well-behaved good student for the most part. I grew up in a community where lines were very bright about behavior. The risk of crossing those lines was much greater as a young Puerto Rican boy in North Philadelphia.

Q: What do you mean?

A: You don't always get second chances.

Quick hits:

Q: If you return to school, what would you study?

A: I've been truant the last couple years from the adult painting classes at the Fleisher Art Memorial.

Q: Favorite Latino restaurants and menu item?

A: Tierra Colombiana [4535 N. Fifth St.] - Churrasco Argentino, it's a steak. Porky's Point at Fifth and Pike - Pernil, pork.

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jvonbergen@phillynews.com

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PEDRO A. RAMOS

Title: Chairman, Philadelphia School Reform Commission.

Day job: Partner and cochair, higher-education practice, Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis L.L.P.

Diplomas: Central High School (242); University of Pennsylvania, urban studies; University of Michigan, law.

Hometown: Northern Liberties

Family: Wife, Rafaela Torres; two daughters, 22 and 19, public school graduates - Central (268) and Masterman.

Public sector: Joined SRC, 2011. School board member, 1995 to 2001. City solicitor, managing director, 2004 to 2007.

Private sector: Chief of staff to former University of Pennsylvania president Judith Rodin. Practiced in several city law firms.


SCHOOL REFORM COMMISSION

Headquarters: Philadelphia

Schools: 212

Enrollment: 134,000

Annual budget: $2.39 billion

Employees: 18,630, including 8,400 teachers

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