A few years ago, if you would have would have told Tommy Ramirez he’d one day be the principal of a San Diego-based charter school, he would have said no way. The educators and guidance counselors at the high school he grew up in would have said the same thing, but for very different reasons.
Growing up as a Chicano youth in Southern California in the 1990s, Ramirez knew he was being tracked, meaning that he was being steered away from seeking high standards in educational achievement and into a vocational track. And that’s exactly why he spent the first part of his career as a community organizer fighting the system, not joining it.
But in 2017, he was offered an opportunity to lead the Chula Vista School District’s MAAC Community School, a combined charter and alternative school serving local Latino youth that is part of the UnidosUS Affiliate Network. Today, he’s a leading voice in the discussion around how charter schools can benefit students pushed to the margins in the traditional public school system and serve as an incubator for fresh new approaches to improving that system. That includes better supports for students who are low-income and/or English learners (ELs), and more progressive strategies in dealing with conflict to ensure that kids of color don’t get disproportionately disciplined and pushed into the school-to-prison pipeline.
“The charter school idea is let’s get community members to help develop schools very specific to their community do things differently. Let’s create those schools. Let’s show that we have success, and then let’s disseminate those best practices to traditional schools,” says Ramirez.
Rethinking the High School Experience for Latinos
“Growing up, I always wanted to work for people but I thought I would never want to work for a school because I felt the schools have so much institutional racism that there’s no way to ever change that,” says Ramirez.
He says he was always good at math, but his high school math teacher tried to deny him enrollment in the college-bound coursework for that subject, encouraging him instead to focus on remedial classes. His father and older siblings had similar experiences in high school, but they all pushed back and ultimately went to four-year universities.
“Once I got to the university, I started reading about charter schools, reading about this idea of getting community involvement and taking ownership and creating a different type of school,” says Ramirez, who majored in education and sociology at University of California San Diego.
But it took Ramirez a while to become a formal educator. He opted first for working as a community organizer, focused on educational justice with a local grassroots organization and network.
Through that work, he got connected to the UnidosUS Affiliate MAAC, a nonprofit organization that has been working to promote self-sufficiency among low-income communities in Southern California since the 1960s. In the late 1990s, the organization decided it was time to do something about the large number of Latino youth who were dropping out of school, so they created MAAC as both a charter and an alternative school that could serve young people ages 14 to 24.
Critical Pedagogy, Community-Based Learning
“The education system in the United States was for a long time the classic banking education system. The idea behind that is that the student is an empty bank and as the teacher or the educator, I’m supposed to fill that bank with knowledge, but that bank isn’t conducive to helping all people love education, and we’re seeing which communities are being marginalized through that system or have always been for a long time,” says Ramirez.
Recognizing that reality, MAAC joined the local school district but built a program around what it calls critical pedagogy.
“It’s project-based learning, but each project is supposed to be embedded in a community issue or something happening in the real world,” explains Ramirez. “Critical pedagogy allows the students the space to understand what they’re learning, and maybe care about it more because it relates to their life.”
For example, many of MAAC’s students experience barriers just to get to school. They might be working several jobs or struggling with reliable transportation, and they may be going back and forth across the border to Mexico to see family.
“You have to bring community into the classroom. They have to understand that they can affect change right now,” adds Ramirez. “What’s an issue happening in the community right now? How can we learn the history or the math behind it? Incorporating the civic duty, the civic engagement into the curriculum is really important.”
A major part of bringing that sense of community and relevance to the outside world comes through ensuring faculty and staff are in tune with the needs of the students, either because they’ve experienced something similar or because they’ve gotten related exposure. For example, employee training might include bringing civil rights leaders into the school to talk about the social, political, and economic issues most affecting the student body, or taking those employees to the place that most represents the fractured lives of those students: the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We’ve said let’s just go to the border and let’s just stand here and listen to the sounds of people crossing the border. Let’s smell what it smells like, let’s look, and let’s do some creative writing,” says Ramirez.
Another strategy is to have his employees write down 14 ways they’ve given dignity to someone in the classroom.
“It’s germinating the seeds that are already in every educator’s minds,” he says.
That germination has spread to everyone working at the school, including its maintenance worker Octavio Blanco, who is also a MAAC alumnus.
“You get to be hands on with the community,” he says noting that while his main role is to keep the grounds in good working order, he keeps an eye out for students who look like they need some help. “Maybe they’re looking for a little direction or just need someone to talk to. Whatever it is, we try to be there for them.”
And for more intensive therapy, MAAC has partnered with local psychology students who are finishing their clinical hours so that they can offer one-on-one and group counseling sessions, often in a variety of languages.
Artistic and Social Programming
Artistic expression also serves as a major conduit of critical thinking and self-esteem building for the youth. Socially conscious murals and mixed-media art line just about every hall of the building and the walls of the outside recreation areas are covered in murals the students painted alongside professional graffiti artists. In fact, many of those murals were actually put together as a competition in which youth learn to compete or work out differences through what they call “can control,” (as in spray cans).
And to combat systemic bias in school discipline practices that disproportionately punish and expel youth who are low-income, minorities, or have learning disabilities, MAAC has spent years exploring best practices in transformative or restorative justice.
“No one comes into the educational system wanting to punish youth. Things get lost in translation and the systems set up are unfair, but all educators I believe come into the system with the right heart. But creating the time and space for that to happen on a daily basis is very difficult in today’s system,” says Ramirez.
One way to build that is to implement what practitioners of this method call healing circles in which a group of youth and teachers or administrators sit down to hear all sides of a conflict, then work together to come up with the best way to resolve it.
“Instead of just focusing on the incident, we’re going to really focus on both of those individuals, and figure out how did they get to this point where there was a bigger disagreement or an issue that happened or someone felt very disrespected,” says Ramirez.
But the arts, he says, can help you to find healing and dignity before conflicts between peers or authority figures escalate. For example, students are often taught to make dream catchers so that they are simultaneously envisioning how they might achieve their dreams.
“The arts help them to be more creative, and not just one single path or like a linear way but being able to incorporate different things and express and communicate,” says MAAC’s art teacher Charlie Mejia.
The dream catcher also serves as a reminder of some of the indigenous traditions from which Latinos come.
“Bringing in culture helps the students have more sense of self—more pride in their culture, more pride in their family. Once you have more pride in yourself, you’re gonna want to do good. You’re gonna want to improve your situation. If you’re struggling in school, if you’ve had problems getting suspended or expelled or locked up, you’re gonna want to do better because now you understand I come from a long line of powerful people that I want to honor,” he says.
And with all those elements in place, Ramirez says students who might otherwise have been written off in overcrowded, highly stressed schools are better able to see themselves as part of a much larger social, economic, and political ecosystem.
It starts with a non-judgmental conversation about who they are and what needs haven’t been met in past school settings.
“When they enroll, from the start, we try to get them to understand about their future and how they can affect their future right now. There’s a form where we ask them basic questions. Have they had discipline issues? Are they on probation? Are they a parent? What do they want to do after high school? What are their career aspirations? Why? How do they feel that they can actually help our school? How can they contribute to our school environment?” says Ramirez.
Those who show an interest in taking a lead role are usually selected to participate in a leadership development camp held in the mountains several times a year. The camp not only gives urban youth a chance to relax and reflect, it serves as a training ground for teaching public speaking and mediation of conflicts.
“It’s utilizing classic youth development and popular education techniques, and then the students and I have created our own types of workshops to really cover these issues that they’re facing in the day to day, to understand how can they deal with these issues but how also can they possibly affect change for those issues?” explains Ramirez.
Incubating Best Practices for All Public Schools
And apart from university studies and prior work in community organizing, Ramirez also gained some important teaching skills from UnidosUS’s own National Institute for Latino School Leaders, which is designed to bridge gaps between the policy arena by infusing the voice of school leaders working with and on behalf of Latino students.
“NILSL trained us and taught us how to evolve our local educational change models to the national level, with tools and opportunities to create federal policy papers and present to several legislators in DC,” says Ramirez, who now serves on the NILSL Alumni Council.
He says the NILSL program has helped him to implement a number of UnidosUS programs including the Latino-focused parent engagement curriculum Padres Comprometidos, the gender-specific youth development workshops Entre Mujeres and Men of Action, a grant for service learning through the UnidosUS CASA program, and greater access to Americorps Volunteers.
This work also helps him highlight some of MAAC’s best practices amid heated debates over California’s charter and traditional public schools. This year’s state education news and legislative session were dominated with bills to reform the California Charter Schools Act, a law allowing charters to operate free of much of the red tape they would have in regular public schools. Charter schools were originally set up to promote academic rigor while doing away with one-size-fits-all educational practices commonly found in traditional schools. However, critics have often argued that charter schools lack oversight and negatively impact funding and staffing for regular district schools. In late August, Governor Newsom announced charter advocates, teachers union, and key lawmakers had reached a compromise agreement to increase charter school accountability while monitoring the fiscal and community impact those schools might have on school.
“We must recognize the many ways students are slipping through the cracks, the way youth are pushed to the margins, or forced onto a prison track,” says Ramirez. “We owe our youth policies and practices to combat these horrible realities.”
-Videography by Ray Santisteban. Video editing by Elnatan Melaku Mulugeta. Script, blog post, and photos by Julienne Gage.