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VOL. 129 | NO. 216 | Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Ramirez Stresses Alignment in Schools Position

By Bill Dries

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The new chief academic officer for Shelby County Schools sees herself as being like the conductor of an orchestra.

“Now we’ve got to make sure everybody knows which song we are playing, make sure their instruments are in tune and ready to go,” said Heidi Ramirez last week as she was still making the move to Memphis, where she officially begins her duties later this month.

Ramirez comes to the school system from being an education consultant for about a year and, before that, chief academic officer of Milwaukee Public Schools.

Shelby County Schools’ new chief academic officer says she hopes to present a more coherent vision of what is happening in the classrooms.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

She also previously served as the associate dean of Temple University’s College of Education in Philadelphia and as the founding director of Temple’s Urban Education Collaborative for more than five years.

As chief academic officer for Shelby County Schools, Ramirez said she hopes to present a better and more coherent vision of what is happening in classrooms across a district that includes schools with different challenges and different models for approaching students.

Put that against the backdrop of a turbulent four years of change in the structure of public education as a whole in Shelby County and what happens at the school level can be obscured at times.

Ramirez described her job as “to help outline and articulate a clear vision for what’s happening inside of classrooms in a vision that is aligned to what we believe all children should know and be able to do and then to create the conditions that enable teachers, principals, instructional coaches to help us get to that vision.”

Ramirez is no stranger to the rough-and-tumble world of education reform, have served on Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission before resigning in 2009 in an open disagreement with Philadelphia’s school superintendent over her questions about how the district was conducting business.

In Milwaukee, Ramirez oversaw a literacy effort not unlike Shelby County Schools’ goal of all third-graders reading at grade level. The effort will be Ramirez’s first challenge.

In a March 2011 op-ed for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel newspaper, she warned dramatic change in Milwaukee’s effort could take time, with perhaps a rush to change the course with the first student performance data.

“We are likely to hear more calls for reform in Milwaukee Public Schools,” she wrote. “The question is: Will the public and policy makers recognize that it is already underway?”

Alignment is a term Ramirez used several times in talking about goals in her new position with Shelby County Schools.

And she talks about it not only across schools but including parents as well in public education’s national shift in recent years to intervention strategies that have dramatically changed classrooms and the pace of learning within them.

“It’s never as strong as it needs to be,” she said of communication with parents. “Particularly now when we are talking about an academic plan that includes so much more rigor, and part of achieving to those levels of rigor means teaching in different ways. A lot of our parents look at homework and say, ‘This isn’t how I was taught.’”

That requires talking with parents continually and listening to their concerns, Ramirez said.

“I think it’s about making sure the pace of change is right, that we have a real sense of urgency about this work but also understand we need to make sure we are clear enough about the vision, that everybody knows what we are up to and can support it,” she added. “I think sometimes reform people kind of get nervous because it can be where we move quickly to accountability sometimes without first saying, ‘What’s the support in place and what’s the vision?’ I want to make sure we are tight on that.”

Ramirez also talked of working more with parents across all of the different relationships they have with their children. It’s something Ramirez knows about personally.

“My mother and I graduated from college the same year. There were times we were taking classes in different places and she would be stressed about her homework. We played different roles in our education,” she said. “Not all of our parents are positioned the same way as some of our other parents in different schools and communities but still want to be and need to be involved in their child’s education.”

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