This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Heidi Ramirez, the former School Reform Commission member vying to become the next leader of Camden’s schools, elaborated in a short phone interview Wednesday about why she’d like to run the extremely troubled system.
"My career has been about working with high-poverty, high-minority districts," she said. "I feel a special relationship with Camden’s children, having come from challenging background myself. And the children of Camden deserve better than what they have had. And I have a commitment to make that change happen."
Unknown, however, is whether the three finalists chosen by the Board of Education will be even considered in the wake of Gov. Chris Christie’s move Monday to tighten state control of the 12,000-student district.
Ramirez, who is of Costa Rican descent, grew up outside Albany, N.Y., and was the director of Temple University’s Urban Education Collaborative when named to the SRC.
Camden, the poorest city of its size in America and the most violent — with nearly 70 homicides last year in a population of less than 80,000 people — has a graduation rate below 50 percent. At the same time, due to landmark New Jersey court decisions on school funding, the city spends more than $20,000 per student, close to the amount spent in some of the area’s wealthy suburbs.
Ramirez was appointed by Gov. Ed Rendell and served on the SRC between March 2008 and August 2009, when she resigned after a very public break with then-superintendent Arlene Ackerman. Ackerman complained that Ramirez asked too many questions about the budget and some of the superintendent’s initiatives in their early stages, including Renaissance schools and Imagine 2014. Ramirez said when she resigned that her educational vision had become "inconsistent" with that of the District.
In 2010, she became chief academic officer of the school district in Milwaukee, known for its voucher system and large charter school sector. She left last June, saying in a newspaper interview that her priorities had been buiding a "common vision" around instruction, developing more partnerships, and raising expectations and a sense of urgency.
According to Inquirer coverage of a public session Tuesday night with the three candidates, Ramirez emphasized her experience with charters and helping to manage a portfolio of schools in Milwaukee. Christie and Christopher Cerf, the former Edison Schools official who now heads the New Jersey Department of Education, have made it clear that they want charters to play a big role in Camden in the future.
Ramirez said she couldn’t comment on where the process goes from here, or whether she has spoken to Cerf, who will choose the new leader of Camden schools.
"This is an opportunity for Camden, and I’d like to be part of that," she said.