October 01, 2007 - Media Coverage

Organizing Principal: In the South Bronx - Ramón Gonzalez Gives a Troubled Middle School a Kidcentric Makeover, Smithsonian

By Paula Span

7:50 a.m.: "Good morning, José, how's everything? What's going on, Jacob? How's your mom? I haven't seen her in a while."

At Middle School 223, the day begins with Principal Ramón Gonzalez in the hallway, greeting his students. He shakes hands, chides latecomers, slips an arm around a tiny girl's shoulders. "I like to make a connection with them," he says. "Let them know you're paying attention."

Until recently, this public school building in the South Bronx was known as a dangerous and discouraging place. But since Gonzalez, 35, created the Laboratory School of Finance and Technology in 2003, educators from as far away a s Seattle have come to see what he's doing.

"Hey, welcome back, we missed you." The girl with the pierced eyebrow has been out sick. "You OK?" Gonzalez keeps his voice gently upbeat.

"The kids respect him, the way he talks to them," says Ana Vasquez, whose daughter graduated in 2006. "They think, 'He really cares for us.' And he does."

Outside, the streets are less caring. "My kids," as Gonzalez calls them, are Latinos and African-Americans facing poverty (90 percent qualify for free lunches), unstable homes (15 percent live in shelters) and the stresses of immigration (20 percent need help learning English).

It's a scenario he knows well. He grew up in an East Harlem tenement with six siblings. His father, a Vietnam vet, drifted into heroin addiction, did time in prison and died of AIDS. But Ramón's mother sent him to a public school for gifted students. He won scholarships to Middlesex, a Massachusetts prep school, and to Cornell University.

He thought he would study law, but in his junior year a fellow inner-city student was arrested for a minor offense and suddenly had a criminal record. When lawyers get involved, Gonzalez reasoned, it's too late: "Kids need an education before they reach that point." So he earned master's degrees in education at City College and at Columbia University's Teachers College an d joined the city schools as a teacher.

In 2003, Gonzalez got a chance to build his own school from scratch. Experienced teachers were already spoken for, so he built his first staff with novices from Teach for America, the nonprofit that sends new college graduates to troubled schools. Four years later, seven of his nine original recruits are still with him. And 500 students applied for the 150 slots in this year's sixth grade.

10 a.m.: A teacher delivers a cup of tea to Gonzalez's office. The staff knows he doesn't eat lunch, and he rarely leaves the building until 5 or 6. The regular school day isn't long enough to rescue those middle schoolers who are reading at a third-grade level, so MS 223 holds onto them with clubs, sports and classes after school and on Saturdays.

The school's finance-and-technology theme came out of research Gonzalez did on urban gangs when he was in college. Gang members, he concluded, had an entrepreneurial bent. "They had marketable skills, but they couldn't go to a job interview because they had prison records," he says. So they became illicit retailers, selling CDs, protection, drugs, "a whole underground economy." He noticed, too, that when he polled middle schoolers, they knew what they wanted to learn: how to make money and use computers.

His school would focus on those interests, he decided. His graduates could eventually work in financial services or tech support—"careers kids could raise a family on." Accordingly, each MS 223 student has daily technology classes. "Our kids can do PowerPoint, Web design; they know every piece of Microsoft Office," he boasts. His after-school "MOUSE Squad" repairs classroom computers. Underlying this specialization, however, is a heavy emphasis on literacy.

"He's changed the whole environment there," says Mary Ehrenworth of the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College, which works with MS 223. "He's shown that all kids can read, all kids can write."

Gonzalez's initial goal—to have half his students perform at grade level within five years—was daunting, given that 40 percent of them are in special education classes or aren't native English speakers. The first year, 9 percent of his sixth graders met or exceeded standards in language arts, and 12 percent did so in math. By 2007, 28 percent were proficient in language, and 44 percent in math. Older students' scores have also risen, but not as much.

Gonzalez bridles at questions about test scores. "That's the first thing people ask," he says. "They don't ask, how many kids attempted suicide in your school and you had to get them counseling, or how many kids are you serving from homeless shelters?" But he promises improvement.

Noon: The principal looks in on a new teacher who's talking with her sixth graders about Greek mythology. "Why do you think there were so many gods?" Gonzalez interjects, launching a discussion about the ancients' limited grasp of science and their search for explanations.

Down the hall, in a math class, a graphing lesson seems to be causing confusion. Gonzalez, wading in to help kids plot coordinates, will talk with the teacher later. "He's not holding the kids accountable," the principal says. And to do that, he says, the teacher must give clearer instructions.

Gonzalez's standards for his staff are high, he says, but so is his admiration for them." Every day they walk into this building," he says, "they're taking a stand against poverty."

2:20 p.m.: Dismissal. At times, life at MS 223 can seem pretty ordinary. A girl complains about a boy pulling her hair; two boys are warned about chatting in class. But then Gonzalez sits down with his assistant principal to discuss a 13-year-old showing cognitive deficits after getting shot in the head. They're trying to get a neurosurgeon to evaluate her. "This kid is lost," he sighs.

Some of Gonzalez's colleagues see him headed for top-tier education administration; others hope he'll enter politics. Not likely, he says. He and his wife, a fourth-grade teacher in another city school, have two sons, including a newborn, and have bought a brownstone on the street where he grew up. He's digging in.

"I love this job because every day we get a chance to change lives," he says. "By the time kids get to high school, a lot of decisions are made. Now, they're still searching."

TechCrew allows me to start my day working with a group of students that have true passion and dedication…TechCrew teaches our students how to work as part of a group and leaves them... read more ›

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– Nancy Amling, Principal, Hudson High School of Learning Technologies

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– Khaleel Anderson, MOUSE Squad, P256Q; MOUSE Corps Technology Design Student

MOUSE Squad increased my interest in technology and in attending Harvey Mudd College as an engineering major, a field I hope will allow my ideas and innovations to improve the world. read more ›

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For people around the world, tech is the pathway to a long and successful career, and we look forward to even more MOUSE alumni leading New York City's booming and influential tech sector... read more ›

– Michael R. Bloomberg, Former Mayor, New York City

The experiences that MOUSE provides its participants help ensure that high school graduates are prepared for good jobs during the summer and in their future careers. MOUSE’s unique emphasis on technology training... read more ›

– Gale Brewer, Manhattan Borough President, Technology Committee Chair

I love finishing school and coming to MOUSE. I love the teamwork and the time to learn new things about computers. read more ›

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Being on MOUSE Squad adds to my experience in school by making me confident about myself. read more ›

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Our MOUSE Squad students stand a little taller. They recognize that they have special skills and are respected for it.

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To me, programs like this don't exactly go to every school around. I enjoy the program and what they teach. My interest in technology has enhanced greatly because of MOUSE Squad. read more ›

– Ally Garcia, MOUSE Squad Member, High School for Arts & Technology

MOUSE uses technology as a means of engaging students and promoting leadership, teamwork and responsibility. read more ›

– Juan Garzon, MOUSE Squad Alum, Robert F. Wagner Secondary School for Arts & Technology

The people at MOUSE are a living, breathing testament to the notion that when an organization is centered around a thoughtful and attainable goal—staffed by competent, bright and passionate individuals—there is very little... read more ›

– Mehran Ghaffarsamar , MOUSE Intern, Baruch College

MOUSE is a really different program than anything else in the city. I am doing something that helps other people and I think globally about what my project may mean not just... read more ›

– Hiram Gonzalez, MOUSE Squad, IN-Tech Academy; MOUSE Corps Technology Design Student

MOUSE provides a unique opportunity for students to give back to their school, deepening their sense of leadership and responsibility, and improving their relationships with peers and teachers—all the while getting hands-on experience... read more ›

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Our MOUSE Squad students are demonstrating leadership skills, learning about responsibilities and how to communicate with adults. This program is inspiring our students and giving them a glimpse of future career opportunities. read more ›

– Carla Haakma, Principal, Los Arboles Elementary School, California

MOUSE Squad students learn many skills frequently cited by employers as keys to success in the workplace, including leadership, communication, teamwork problem solving and time management. read more ›

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– Victor Herrera, Director of Technology, Theodore Roosevelt High School, Chicago

The MOUSE program should be in every school in New York City. read more ›

– Robert Jackson, Member, New York City Council

What excites me most about MOUSE Squad is going to fix computers and hanging out with friends. I really think MOUSE Squad pushes you to try and learn new things. read more ›

– Danielle Jacobs, MOUSE Squad Member, Cooper High School, Abilene Texas

MOUSE empowers students to explore their interests, use their creativity and express their opinions constructively. Students are prepared for the future by encouraging them to ask questions and improving their team-building and communications... read more ›

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– Lou Lahana, MOUSE Squad Coordinator, P.S. 188

I joined MOUSE to explore my passion for technology and be a part of an organization that values communications and teamwork. read more ›

– Rigel Leonard, MOUSE Corps Member, School of the Future

“I am amazed at the eagerness and enthusiasm of my MOUSE Squad. They have dedication and motivation, and are the reason I want to come to school every day.” read more ›

– Victor Lopez, MOUSE Squad Coordinator, MS 328

I have always been into technology. When I first came to Hudson I learned MOUSE Squad is the heart of our school—where everything is at. read more ›

– Kaylah Mack, Member, MOUSE Squad and MOUSE Corps

MOUSE has had such a positive impact on my life, including my college and work experiences. MOUSE has exposed me to aspects of this world that I would not otherwise have had the... read more ›

– Ryan Mason, MOUSE Corps Fellow and MOUSE Squad Alum, School of the Future

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MOUSE Squad has taught me the skills I need for the future. read more ›

– Ismelda Monegro, Bea Fuller Rodgers School, New York

MOUSE has been one of the best things in which I have participated in my 21 year career. It continues to be good for both students and teachers at every school where I... read more ›

– Nathan Monroe, Coordinator, Academy of Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Science, Texas

Growing up there was no expectation in getting this far. Without the MOUSE Squad, I do not think I would've ever been into technology. Technology has changed my life. read more ›

– Karla Moreno , MOUSE Squad Member, Turlock High School, California

MOUSE brought me where I stand today and gave me real life work experience. MOUSE taught me about leadership and teamwork, and that there is no such thing as a bad idea. read more ›

– Dhondup Namgyal, MOUSE Corps Member, International High School

MOUSE has taught me how to help other people—learn from them, think for them, and design for them. read more ›

– Omar Nasr, MOUSE Squad and MOUSE Corps Member

Joining MOUSE showed me who I can be. MOUSE brings out the potential in youth through technology and helps you to be best you can be. MOUSE brings out the leader in you. read more ›

– Zainab, MOUSE Squad, Hudson High School of Learning Technologies MOUSE Corps Technology Design Student

MOUSE students are innovators that use technology to change the world. read more ›

– Neimat Orengo, MOUSE Alum, James Madison High School

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– Wilson Ortiz, MOUSE Squad Coordinator, Hudson High School of Learning Technologies

The MOUSE Squad students are very curious and want to learn. Everyone knows about the MOUSE Squad in this school. read more ›

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Leadership, pride, self confidence and a sense of responsibility -- this is the impact of the MOUSE Squad program on our students. read more ›

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Our MOUSE students realize that this is just the beginning. They can go on to college to study computer technology, and become help desk technicians and repair specialists…and many do. read more ›

– Irwin Queen, School of Cooperative Technical Education

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I thank MOUSE for starting my career. Without MOUSE, I would not be as successful as I am today. read more ›

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MOUSE has taught me many valuable lessons that will help me in life. read more ›

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Thanks to efforts of MOUSE, young people throughout New York City will have the opportunity to better their lives and become productive members of our society.

– Charles E. Schumer, United States Senator for New York

I commend MOUSE for improving the educational opportunities for young people, motivating them to attend college and preparing them for high quality jobs in the future. read more ›

– José E. Serrano, Congressman, 16th District of New York

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MOUSE has provided life changing experiences for me that have added tremendously to my passion for technology… regardless of the company or industry, you will always need technology and the skills we learn... read more ›

– Leroy Tindi, MOUSE Squad Alum, Riverdale Kingsbridge Academy

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– Matthew Valia, MOUSE Squad Coordinator, Berta A. Drefus School

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– Syed Zaidi, MOUSE Squad Alum, Baccalaureate School for Global Education