VOL. 132 | NO. 65 | Friday, March 31, 2017
The Tipping Point
SCS’ Ramírez Reflects on Time in Memphis
BY MICAELA WATTS
Memphis stands at the threshold of incredible possibility. In this series, we introduce innovative Memphians who are driving our city forward and forging its future success.
Every day, Shelby County educators must perform a delicate balancing act. On one hand, they must raise expectations and ensure that more of their students are college-ready. On the other, they must take into account the many barriers to academic success these kids face – things like poverty, poor nutrition, unsafe neighborhoods and a lack of transportation.
As outgoing chief academic officer of Shelby County Schools, Heidi Ramírez has been responsible for setting the tone of that conversation. Her time in Memphis has yielded some promising results, but a lot of work remains to be done.
“The idea is not to throw students in the deep end and see if they sink or swim,” explains Ramírez, who will step down on March 31. “We have to maintain an environment that’s sufficiently challenging, but we also have to ask ourselves, ‘What do these kids need to be successful?’”
HEIDI RAMIREZ (Ziggy Mack)
According to the Tennessee Department of Education, 82 percent of SCS students are economically disadvantaged. Although Shelby County is the largest school district in Tennessee, it is also one of the state’s most chronically underfunded.
“That’s what has kept me up at night, making sure our teachers are getting the support they need,” admits Ramírez.
Ramírez grew up in upstate New York and graduated from Syracuse University. Though she had planned for a career in the arts, a work-study program that involved tutoring kids from underserved neighborhoods changed her mind – and her major.
“The more I got involved with education and public policy, the more I realized it was for me.”
Ramírez finished in a teacher’s education program in the arts, followed by master’s degrees from Harvard and Stanford and a doctorate at Stanford. Before arriving in Memphis, Ramírez was the CAO of the Milwaukee public school district and an education consultant with a focus on urban education issues.
She says one of the most pressing parts of her job here has been figuring out how to support teachers and students in the face of constantly changing state education policy, higher expectations, and enhanced accountability – all while losing pupils and dollars. She calls it “managing the urgency.”
“We have to give promising improvements and innovations time to take hold and bear fruit,” explains Ramírez. “That way we can develop the buy-in and capacity we need to ensure that these programs are both high-quality and sustainable.”
After arriving in Memphis, Ramírez led the effort to develop a comprehensive literacy plan to help the nearly half of Memphis public school students who were reading below grade level. It was the step to advance “Destination 2025,” the strategic plan adopted by the district a year earlier.
Two years on, she can tout some promising results: TNReady high school tests show high growth for student literacy in Memphis. Meanwhile, teacher satisfaction and professional development numbers are up; student attendance and graduation rates are up; and suspensions are down. Still, the district is still far off its target of boosting third-grade reading proficiency to 90 percent by 2025.
In an email to colleagues, Ramírez said she made the difficult decision to leave her role in order to be closer to loved ones and take on new challenges. But she said that working with Memphis children has been “one of the greatest privileges of my life.”
“That’s the exciting thing about Memphis,” said Ramírez. “I truly believe the community is behind these kids, and I am confident in our great staff to do this difficult but necessary work.”
Heidi Ramírez is a graduate of New Memphis’ Leadership Development Intensive (LDI). Learn more at newmemphis.org.