Principal Month Tribute: Ramon Gonzalez

“Whatever happens . . . happens,” said one of Principal Ramon Gonzalez’s senior year classmates at a protest against Cornell University’s financial aid policy. The police were about to arrest the classmate for a stupid prank.  

“Here was a statement of resignation from a talented student of color, with all the promise in the world, at an exceptional university, “Gonzalez said, “but he was ready to accept his fate.”

Back then, as an activist at Cornell, Gonzalez had wanted to become a lawyer, but this moment changed his whole mindset. The student ultimately did not get arrested. Still, this experience made Gonzalez want “to help every student to feel empowered and able to decide their own path, on their own terms.”  

He had an awakening: “I wanted to change fatalistic mindsets earlier in life, so I decided to become a school principal.”  As a lawyer, he would be reaching such kids too late.

Growing up in East Harlem, Gonzalez was influenced by community activist parents. As difficult as life could be, he had many other supportive adults around him, who saw his abilities and encouraged him. It now seems inevitable that he was to be an activist principal in his school community and in his union, the Council of School Supervisors & Administrators (CSA), AFSA Local 1.

The neighbors in Harlem “were my community cousins, Puerto Rican, Black and Italian American,” he says. “My neighborhood family. Years later, when I had the chance to design my own school, I wanted to create an environment that felt like a family.” 

That school is The Laboratory School of Finance and Technology, MS/HS 223, in the South Bronx, which Gonzalez founded in 2003. When he arrived, gangs were common, and fewer than 10% of students were at grade level. Today, 65% of his students are at grade level in English and 65% in Math. Gonzalez has grown the school into a high school as well.  It is a center of innovation where his financially literate students earn, save and spend “community bucks,” another feature that keeps kids engaged.

His community activism has attracted partnerships from within the South Bronx community and beyond, which have increased the opportunities available to students. He was greatly influenced by Dr. Michael Carrera from the Children’s Aid Society, who believed in supporting the whole child through a variety of programs, including extended day.  Gonzalez is often in school day and night, befitting his conviction that school is home, “an environment that should feel like family.” He lives nearby to be accessible to high-poverty young people from the neighborhood.

Gonzalez started out as a 6th and 7th grade teacher at Manhattan’s IS 44 in 1996. Novice though he was, his teaching was showcased over  a full year by The Merrow Report, which turned into a PBS documentary that continues to be watched today: “Growing Up in the City,” about race, education and identity in New York City. Early on, Gonzalez also wrote a piece called “Welcome Home, Boyz: Building Communities through Cultural Capital.” He has written and presented on many topics, in the United States and abroad, especially about adolescent issues and urban gangs.

In 2001, he became an assistant principal at IS 162/The Academy of Future Technologies in the Bronx. He had already earned one master’s degree in science from City University of New York; he went on to earn additional master's degrees from Teachers College, Columbia University, in arts and in education, and a doctorate in organization and leadership, also from Teachers College, Columbia.

Today, Gonzalez is a well-known “master principal.” Both he and his school havewon accolades. The school has been named one of the Intel Schools of Distinction winners for middle school mathematics and also has been named a colegio de ano, for its dual language program, by the Spanish Embassy. He was recognized as a White House “Champion of Change” by PresidentBarack Obama.

The pandemic provided new opportunity for Gonzalez to stretch. In lockdown, the school community had to come together in new ways. He held weekly town hall Zoom meetings so that parents, children, staff and members of the greater community could focus on hot topics. Over the course of a year, many in the community leveraged this time to learn about assets in the local community like food pantries, housing programs, tutoring and stipends for parents of students with special needs. He held similar regular meetings with the Middle School Principal’s Association, of which he was president. Attendance soared at both. The need to connect was palpable.

“The first thing I had to do was become more aware of the needs of others,” he said. “Instead of just running with something like I tend to do, I had to stop, listen and take others’ [convictions] into account.” Especially the students’ convictions.

“Many of our kids had been forced to become bread winners; we had 5% parental loss,” Gonzalez noted. "Our community partners and staff teamed to create tutoring and local job opportunities.  At one point, we were able to have 70 students employed with our community school’s partner, Arete."

He recalled that years before, Ernest Logan, then president of CSA Local, 1, told his members: “The best principals should be like mayors of communities, ready to respond, connect and meet the distinct needs of everyone.” 

“Although it has been a challenging 18 months,” Gonzalez said, “I’m so proud of how school leaders led and assisted throughout this crisis, from online learning to food deliveries to homes. That adage that crisis bring out the best in everyone was evident in the leadership of our union members, our brothers and sisters.  Connection became much more important to all of us than in the past. Let’s take some of that with us when the pandemic is over.”

But when it is over, Gonzalez still will have his work cut out for him. He has worked hard to hire from the community. Over the last two years, he has added school teachers, school aides, guidance counselors, paraprofessionals and tutors—almost all former students from the school or local community—as his equity statement. And he is hard at work on a proposal for an inner-city boarding school for at-risk students in the South Bronx.