Organizing Principal- page 1 | Making A Difference | Smithsonian

Organizing Principal

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

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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.

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