Organizing Principal

In the South Bronx, Ramón Gonzalez gives a troubled middle school a kidcentric makeover

“He’s changed the whole environment,” a fellow educator says of Gonzalez (at Middle School 223, March 2007). Though many of his students come from poor or unstable homes, “he’s shown that all kids can read, all kids can write.” (Landon Nordeman)
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7:50 a.m.: "Good morning, José, how's everything? What's going on, Jacob? How's your mom? I haven't seen her in a while."

At Middle School 223, the day begins with principal Ramón Gonzalez in the hallway, greeting his students. He shakes hands, chides latecomers, slips an arm around a tiny girl's shoulders. "I like to make a connection with them," he says. "Let them know you're paying attention."

Until recently, this public school building in the South Bronx was known as a dangerous and discouraging place. But since Gonzalez, 35, created the Laboratory School of Finance and Technology in 2003, educators from as far away as Seattle have come to see what he's doing.

"Hey, welcome back, we missed you." The girl with the pierced eyebrow has been out sick. "You OK?" Gonzalez keeps his voice gently upbeat.

"The kids respect him, the way he talks to them," says Ana Vasquez, whose daughter graduated in 2006. "They think, 'He really cares for us.' And he does."

Outside, the streets are less caring. "My kids," as Gonzalez calls them, are Latinos and African-Americans facing poverty (90 percent qualify for free lunches), unstable homes (15 percent live in shelters) and the stresses of immigration (20 percent need help learning English).

It's a scenario he knows well. He grew up in an East Harlem tenement with six siblings. His father, a Vietnam vet, drifted into heroin addiction, did time in prison and died of AIDS. But Ramón's mother sent him to a public school for gifted students. He won scholarships to Middlesex, a Massachusetts prep school, and to Cornell University.

He thought he would study law, but in his junior year a fellow inner-city student was arrested for a minor offense and suddenly had a criminal record. When lawyers get involved, Gonzalez reasoned, it's too late: "Kids need an education before they reach that point." So he earned master's degrees in education at City College and at Columbia University's Teachers College and  joined the city schools as a teacher.

In 2003, Gonzalez got a chance to build his own school from scratch. Experienced teachers were already spoken for, so he built his first staff with novices from Teach for America, the nonprofit that sends new college graduates to troubled schools. Four years later, seven of his nine original recruits are still with him. And 500 students applied for the 150 slots in this year's sixth grade.

10 a.m.: A teacher delivers a cup of tea to Gonzalez's office. The staff knows he doesn't eat lunch, and he rarely leaves the building until 5 or 6. The regular school day isn't long enough to rescue those middle schoolers who are reading at a third-grade level, so MS 223 holds onto them with clubs, sports and classes after school and on Saturdays.

The school's finance-and-technology theme came out of research Gonzalez did on urban gangs when he was in college. Gang members, he concluded, had an entrepreneurial bent. "They had marketable skills, but they couldn't go to a job interview because they had prison records," he says. So they became illicit retailers, selling CDs, protection, drugs, "a whole underground economy." He noticed, too, that when he polled middle schoolers, they knew what they wanted to learn: how to make money and use computers.

His school would focus on those interests, he decided. His graduates could eventually work in financial services or tech support—"careers kids could raise a family on." Accordingly, each MS 223 student has daily technology classes. "Our kids can do PowerPoint, Web design; they know every piece of Microsoft Office," he boasts. His after-school "Mouse Squad" repairs classroom computers. Underlying this specialization, however, is a heavy emphasis on literacy.

"He's changed the whole environment there," says Mary Ehrenworth of the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College, which works with MS 223. "He's shown that all kids can read, all kids can write."

Gonzalez's initial goal—to have half his students perform at grade level within five years—was daunting, given that 40 percent of them are in special education classes or aren't native English speakers. The first year, 9 percent of his sixth graders met or exceeded standards in language arts, and 12 percent did so in math. By 2007,  28 percent were proficient in language, and 44 percent in math. Older students' scores have also risen, but not as much.

Gonzalez bridles at questions about test scores. "That's the first thing people ask," he says. "They don't ask, how many kids attempted suicide in your school and you had to get them counseling, or how many kids are you serving from homeless shelters?" But he promises improvement.

Noon: The principal looks in on a new teacher who's talking with her sixth graders about Greek mythology. "Why do you think there were so many gods?" Gonzalez interjects, launching a discussion about the ancients' limited grasp of science and their search for explanations.

Down the hall, in a math class, a graphing lesson seems to be causing confusion. Gonzalez, wading in to help kids plot coordinates, will talk with the teacher later. "He's not holding the kids accountable," the principal says. And to do that, he says, the teacher must give clearer instructions.

Gonzalez's standards for his staff are high, he says, but so is his admiration for them. "Every day they walk into this building," he says, "they're taking a stand against poverty."

2:20 p.m.: Dismissal. At times, life at MS 223 can seem pretty ordinary. A girl complains about a boy pulling her hair; two boys are warned about chatting in class. But then Gonzalez sits down with his assistant principal to discuss a 13-year-old showing cognitive deficits after getting shot in the head. They're trying to get a neurosurgeon to evaluate her. "This kid is lost," he sighs.

Some of Gonzalez's colleagues see him headed for top-tier education administration; others hope he'll enter politics. Not likely, he says. He and his wife, a fourth-grade teacher in another city school, have two sons, including a newborn, and have bought a brownstone on the street where he grew up. He's digging in.

"I love this job because every day we get a chance to change lives," he says. "By the time kids get to high school, a lot of decisions are made. Now, they're still searching."

Paula Span teaches at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

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