WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — Manuel Ramirez, the recently appointed superintendent of Manhattan's District 6, is planning new initiatives to boost student achievement — including encouraging schools to hold classes on Saturdays.
Ramirez launched Saturday classes a decade ago as the founding principal of M.S 327 in The Bronx, which eventually grew to include a high school, and he credited the classes with helping his students succeed.
"I’m big on Saturdays," said Ramirez, who was just appointed to his new role as superintendent by Chancellor Carmen Fariña in August. "I’ve been telling people that I want them to open their schools on Saturdays."
While some of District 6's schools already offer limited Saturday programs, Ramirez envisions classes every Saturday at every school, though funding could be an issue.
"It doesn’t have to be necessarily for academics," Ramirez said of the Saturday classes. "You can have arts, sports, drama, debate club, but open the building on Saturdays. If you have teachers available, open the school on Saturday and teach. I’m going to try to make it happen."
Ramirez is also known for having an open door to teachers, parents and students who need to talk, and he plans to bring that same hands-on approach to addressing issues in District 6.
DNAinfo sat down with Ramirez to talk about his additional plans to increase parent engagement and academic performance in Washington Heights and Inwood:
Why did you decide to leave the school you founded to take on this position?
I came to [District 6] when I came from the Dominican Republic. Two of my girls were born here and attended P.S. 115 so I am emotionally connected to this district, to this area.
I also believe that under Chancellor Fariña, the DOE will change for the better. I believe that the role of superintendent is about to change to somebody more relevant to the success of the schools. Because of that, I thought I could make a difference, that the same type of thing we built for 10 years at M.S. 327, maybe we could do it here on a bigger scale.
At your school, you tried some unusual initiatives. What two or three really had an impact?
I was a math teacher for middle school and high school. One curriculum that bothered me was the middle school math curriculum. We created our own curriculum and then we took our curriculum and the Impact math curriculum and we made them complimentary to each other. We had two different teachers teaching the same group of students two different curriculums of math that complemented each other. Having those two math classes … paid off big dividends for our students.
Our Saturday program was also open every Saturday of the year from the first Saturday to the last Saturday. There was no such thing as a Saturday academy just for test prep. No. We had classes.
What are the biggest challenges facing District 6?
I have seen a lot of miscommunication district-wide and that is at all levels: principals, teachers, parents, staff, students. That’s one of the biggest challenges I have, to make sure that people understand that community engagement and collaboration is one of the main pillars the chancellor has. You will not be able to move any agenda unless the community is on board.
The second challenge is based on the data. We have to increase student performance almost everywhere. Many of the schools I have studied are not even close to where they should be in terms of ELA and math.
Chancellor Fariña visited your school as a model for parent engagement. How will you improve that at the district level?
We’re going to have a parent association president and parent coordinator’s town hall. We’re going to have two schools present an initiative they have done in their schools: how they came up with the idea, how they implemented it and the results they are having in terms of engaging the parents.
One of the schools that’s going to present here, they created this grade-level committee of parents. They have so many people volunteering to help that each classroom has one parent as an assistant. If a kid needs to go to the nurse, the parent will take the kid to the nurse. If they are going to the cafeteria, the parent can help with the behavior of the kids.
As you mentioned, many District 6 schools are under-performing. How will you improve student achievement?
The DOE has created a school achievement initiative citywide. They divided all schools into four different tiers. The first tier was the schools who really, really need help. In our district, that was P.S. 132. We have two coaches working there now under that initiative. I’m going to have two more coaches and they’re going to spend an enormous amount of time in that school.
We expect that by the end of this year we will have a plan for all four tiers.
One of the things that really made the difference in our school was working with the teachers to help the students. Each teacher is different. You need to help them grow in the area that they need improvement. I have to do the same thing for the schools. I have to sit down with the principal and individualize the support that we’re going to give the schools.
How will you go about that?
We started a principal study group. We’re using experienced, successful principals to present ideas from their particular schools.
The first one we used was Principal Ysidro Abreu from M.S. 319. He presented about how he looked at students individually and prepared academic interventions for each kid depending on their deficiencies. Principals were very excited about it.
Once you get a good professional development plan up and running, once you increase community engagement, once you get the principals to listen to each other and learn from each other, chances are that that’s going to create a wave that’s going to lift the achievement of the students.
Local parents are concerned about overcrowding in the schools. Do you have a solution for that?
We have space in the district but when everybody wants to go to the same school, that creates a problem. The problem is not the parents who want to send their child to that particular school that’s doing well. The problem is that if every school were doing well, you wouldn’t have this problem.
Our whole job now is to worry about the schools who are not doing well and reverse the trend so that our parents feel comfortable and safe sending their kids to any school.