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Principal Promotes Peace

New America Media, News Feature, Carolyn Goossen Posted: Feb 24, 2009

Editor's note: San Jose principal Orlando Ramos is trying to create detente among gangs in his middle school by using students' leadership skills to help them make better choices and create a more peaceful campus. Carolyn Goossen is an education editor at NAM. Ann Bassette is an editor at YO! Youth Outlook Multimedia.

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Orlando Ramos never dreamed that one day he would become a school principal. "I had the honor of getting kicked out of schools in two different states: New York and Texas," he said with a wide smile and an unmistakable New York accent. "I was bored, extremely bored. I remember sitting there and thinking to myself, what on earth does this have to do with real life?"

Ramos, 44, finally dropped out of school altogether in the 10th grade and spent the next year living out of his car. He recalls having to steal from the local supermarket just to survive.

It was the powerful words and deeds of a teacher who helped changed his life. "[He] knocked on my door and said, 'Dude, you need to get out of here.' And sure enough, he found me a GED program. I passed [it] with flying colors, went on to college, and here I am today."

Here is Lee Mathson Middle School in San Jose, where he became the principal last year. Much of Ramos' 15-year career as a teacher, dean of security, and now principal, has been about using his communication skills, educator's passion and personal experiences to engage those students who are as bored and disillusioned as he once was. His Puerto Rican roots, compelling personal story and Spanish language fluency make him particularly effective at connecting to youth who feel more connected to the streets than to school, including gang members.

Ramos has gained a reputation for being able to nurture trust with gang members in some of the nation's toughest schools, from Walton High School in the Bronx, N.Y., to Richmond High in Richmond, Calif., where he was recently awarded the California Wellness Foundation Peace Prize for his work.

At Richmond, one of his major successes was significantly decreasing the violence and gang-related incidents at the school. He did this by instituting an elective class for 30 gang members that was woven into the regular school day. Using a curriculum developed by the Amer-i-can Program, (founded by former football great and gang-prevention activist Jim Brown) the class focuses on teaching students life skills such as anger management, personal finances, and job skills such as resume writing. The students are asked to sign a peace treaty and agree to keep the campus a neutral zone, where no one should walk in fear.

orlando ramosLee Mathson Middle School Principal Orlando Ramos

Ramos had to leave Richmond High after only two years due to health and stress reasons (he was in the emergency room three times during his time there). Now, in the Alum Rock Union Elementary School District, in East San Jose, his student body of almost 700 is 87 percent Latino, and 59 percent are English learners. All the students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. His challenge is to take the tactics he effectively used at the high school level and apply them to this middle school.

Ramos believes that by the 6th grade, many students lose the enthusiasm for school that they had in the lower grades. "We have to get better at making the connection between school and the real world," he said. "Schools ask, 'How can we motivate kids to do better?' But the question should be, 'What do we need to do to prevent kids from losing their motivation?'"

One of his goals for the next school year is to implement a similar class for 20 or so gang-affiliated students as part of an extended day or after-school program.

"What I've learned is, it's about the power of relationships. If you just say, 'We have this program, come on in,' it won't work. The kids really need to know that you are on their side and that you care about them."

So this year, his focus is on building those relationships, to create a foundation for this class. He has regular, informal meetings with gang-affiliated students, where they have long conversations about what is going on in their lives.

Sitting in the school office, waiting for one of her regular talks with the principal is a 7th grade student who is regularly in trouble for fights. She is a leader of the Sureos gang in the middle school. She started 'banging', she says, in the 3rd grade.

"It was just a thing I seen in my neighborhood. I seen everybody doing it so I wanted to do it too," she said.

San Jose, while not a high crime community like Richmond, has a deeply entrenched gang history, particularly on the South side and East side, where the school is located.

Dominated by the Norteos starting in the 1970s, these areas have become majority "Sureo" neighborhoods in recent years, made up largely of Spanish-speaking immigrant youth.


Ramos says his job is not to encourage kids to leave their gangs, but to help them imagine other options. "Once you begin to realize that [gangs are] about banding together for safety and love, you begin to realize that you can engage kids who are in gangs by showing them there are other paths where they can [find this]," he said.

"In this student's case, the choice was made for her because of her family. She didn't have a choice to become a gang member or not. She was born into this life and doesn't know any other life," he said.

Her long black hair pulled tight in a ponytail, the seventh-grader looks every bit her age. Yet she regularly fights other girls and encourages the girls who follow her to do the same. She has been a lead participant in a number of school rumbles, Ramos says, and is easily angered when she perceives she is being disrespected.

"These kids are leaders, we forget that," he said. "They are leading for the wrong reasons, definitely, but it's up to us to push them in the right direction."

He hopes that one outcome of these talks is that he can redirect her attention to academics. "I would say that nine out of 10 times, when I'm dealing with these gang leaders, if I can get them to improve their academics, the number of incidents just drops. It just happens, when the kids realize, 'I can do this,'" he said. "She likes writing poetry, so I'm going to work on getting her involved in the student newspaper."

And ultimately, he hopes she will agree to join the special class for gang members next year.

For now, she is still not convinced that peace between gangs can ever happen on campus, although she agrees that peace would be a good thing. "Sureos really hate Norteos, and the Norteos really hate the Sureos," she told him.

"That's the challenge of leadership," Ramos said.

Related Articles:

How is Deporting My Brother a Solution to Gang Violence?

Why Youth Violence Still Plagues Black Communities

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