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Philly schools could thrive under Latino superintendent, some activists suggest

Heidi Ramirez, in an orange sweater and slacks, leans against a table at the back of a high school classroom while students sit at desks, on a visit in 2014 to Southwind High School in Memphis.

Heidi Ramirez, who served on the now dissolved School Reform Commission, has been mentioned by some as a possible candidate to be superintendent in Philadelphia.

Tajuana Cheshier / Chalkbeat

As the School District of Philadelphia intensifies its search for a superintendent, members of the city’s growing Latino community are floating names of potential candidates and the agenda they should tackle.

Names mentioned include current state and city education leaders, as well as school chiefs in big cities elsewhere. Some value a candidate having experienced poverty — as many of Philadelphia’s students do — and someone who is true to their cultural identity.

The next superintendent should be committed to equity and equality in education, said Carmen Febo San Miguel, executive director of Taller Puertorriqueño Inc. located in Fairhill.

Acting Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Education Noe Ortega speaks at a podium, wearing glasses, a grey shirt, and black tie.

A name mentioned to be considered for Philadelphia superintendent is Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Education Noe Ortega.

Ben Hasty / MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

That person “needs to be concerned with the disconnect that some kids feel in not being represented in schools,” she said. Her group focuses on preserving and promoting Puerto Rican arts and culture through community empowerment.

While Latinos remain a minority in Philadelphia schools, their ranks have grown by half since 2008, now reaching 22% of public school enrollment.

Names that have been floated include Noe Ortega, Pennsylvania’s secretary of education, and Heidi Ramirez, who sat on the now-dissolved School Reform Commission. Ramirez also was executive director of Educator Networks for America Achieves, a national non-profit, and served as chief academic officer for Shelby County Schools in Memphis, Tennessee.

Another name is Cynthia Figueroa, who recently accepted the position to lead the nonprofit JEVS Human Services. She was previously head of the city’s Department of Children and Families.

And an out-of-state school leader considered is Michael Hinojosa, superintendent of schools in Dallas, Texas.

Three of Philadelphia’s poorest ZIP codes — 19133, 19134, and 19140 — have the largest concentrations of Hispanic residents in the city, mostly living in the Fairhill, East Allegheny, and Juniata neighborhoods and attending schools like Julio DeBurgos, Luis Muñoz Marín and Philip Sheridan elementary schools.

Thus, it’s important for the next superintendent to have personal experience with poverty and with building systems to support children and families, said Nelson Flores, associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

Julio Nuñez, an assistant principal at Sheridan, said that a Latino leader who embraces their identity and understands families’ struggles would validate students. 

“When students in the district see this in a leader, they feel seen,” he said. “They feel like their identity is valued, their heritage, their language matters, and that all of this package can be an asset in their lives and careers, not a hurdle to overcome.”

Even more important is having a superintendent who will help Latinx students succeed, said Adam Sanchez, a history teacher at Central High School.

“Most crucially, we need a superintendent who is willing to confront the deep segregation in our school system head on,” he said. “We can no longer tolerate a situation where our schools with the largest Latinx populations have some of the greatest teacher vacancies and lowest graduation rates. These schools need more resources.”

The search to replace Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite, who announced this fall that he would step down next August, started in October. The district collected public feedback through November in councilmanic districts.

The board’s search firm, Isaacson, Miller, released the job posting Friday and plans next month to begin interviews. The school board could narrow the finalists from five to two candidates by February.

State Rep. Danilo Burgos, whose family migrated to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic, spoke highly of Hite and said, “It shouldn’t be about who is Latino or African American. We get too caught up in silos and forget that the overall goal is to provide the best options for our kids.”

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