From strawberry fields to Superintendent – new SUSD chief Ramirez relates to Stockton’s students

California’s 6 million student population demographic is dominated by Latinos. More than half, approximately 3 million-plus, identify by that ethnicity.

Closer to home in Stockton, that percentage shifts to a 70 percent Latino student populace out of 35,000 total enrolled in the Stockton Unified School District.

For John Ramirez, being able to identify with his student population is important. He understands the importance of representation, particularly when it concerns his former students.

That includes students like Mary Espinoza, a school teacher in east Salinas, her hometown and the place where she first met Ramirez.

Mr. Ramirez exposed Espinoza to concepts of justice and inequity while she was in his classroom. It inspired her to pursue the profession.

Espinoza is like many in east Salinas who have been affected by gang violence and drug use. Her siblings have been incarcerated on drug-related charges. They have been victims of sever violence due to gang affiliations.

“I daily wonder if my brothers had (Mr. Ramirez) as their teacher, what their fate would have been…” said Espinoza recently.

Just as Ramirez had a lasting impact on her own journey, Espinoza is certain her siblings’ lives would have been impacted for the better had Ramirez been involved before it was too late.

Ramirez will now have the chance to impact tens of thousands of students in the Stockton Unified School District. As the newly appointed interim superintendent, Ramirez will be in charge of turning around a District that has struggled with student achievement and performance.

With a student population that is 70 percent Latino, the District now turns to Ramirez to lead them out of the dark. The son of farm workers who himself began working in the fields at the tender age of 6, Ramirez provides crucial representation for a severely underrepresented student body.

“Where I grew up, in east Salinas, inequity was everywhere,” said Ramirez Jr., who previously served as superintendent of Alisal Union School District, the same school district he and Espinoza attended for elementary school. “Two, three families packed into one residence. Parents working from pre-dawn to dark, unable to support their children during the school day. Language barriers. Rampant poverty. Gang violence. When I look at the issues I faced head on in Salinas then compare them to what we are faced with in Stockton, it just reinforces my belief that families need an advocate who has first-hand experiences just like theirs.”

Ramirez’s road to the District Superintendent seat began in the Salinas Valley strawberry fields. Picking fruit side by side with his parents, Ramirez understood early on that hard work wasn’t just expected, it was essential for survival.

Ramirez went from laboring in the ag industry to receiving lessons in the Ivy League. He graduated with a Master’s Degree in Education from Harvard University. After a short stint as a teacher and counselor, where he inspired students like Espinoza, he earned his first administrative position in 1997 at the age of 25. A year later, he was promoted to principal, a remarkable accomplishment.

Ramirez’s specialty throughout his administrative career has been academic improvement and equity initiatives. As a principal, he helped improve academic performance scores everywhere he went. When he took the helm at Alisal, the district was under state receivership, Ramirez steered the district out of the takeover a year earlier than anticipated.

Alisal became one of the top-scoring districts in the state for schools with similar socio-economics. It also showed the biggest gains in test scores in the region.

Ramirez launched free meal initiatives in the district that resulted in all children 18 and under being eligible for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He initiated 1:1 technology programs that gave every student in the district a free device. His efforts laid the foundation for the district to be lauded for having 100 percent digital connectivity for students during the pandemic.

The District also launched a sports league as well as music and dance classes that were culturally relevant to the student population, which was more than 95 percent Latino and working class. All of these extracurricular programs were made free of charge for families.

One of the crown achievements was the establishment of a Labor Management Initiative modeled after successful award winning programs at other districts. In May 2015, the Salinas Californian reported that the District reached a tentative contract agreement that would make Alisal teachers among the highest paid of any Title I school district in the county.

“The Alisal Teachers Association is pleased to have worked with the district on writing an agreement with the comprehensive package that will aide in recruiting and retaining the most qualified teachers that the students deserve,” said the union president George Lopez.

“For me, giving students everything they needed up front was the best approach to boost academic performance. If a student knows they don’t have to worry about the necessities – having enough to eat, having a solid internet connection and a good computer to work on, extracurricular activities, having adults who will be there to support them – then they can focus on their end of the bargain, which is learning,” said Ramirez.

Ramirez has his work cut out for him at Stockton. While the District saw improvement in English and Math, it still performed well below state standards according to the state’s education dashboard. It lost momentum for college and career readiness.

And that is what makes Ramirez the ideal candidate to lead Stockton. With his proven record of improving institutions with troubled academic performance and struggling labor management cultures, he is uniquely qualified to turn things around.

Given his previous experience navigating districts through troubled waters, the board is sending strong support behind their choice.

Board President Cecilia Mendez said in a statement “This is a great day for Stockton’s educational community and the city as a whole. John Ramirez Jr. is a proven leader who has worked to unite educational institutions under one guiding principle: to improve the quality of education for all students.”

Ramirez said he is ready for the challenge.

“We have an opportunity here in Stockton to transform lives and shift the entire narrative for this community,” he said. “It will take the collective community of – teachers, staff, labor unions, and the community at large – but the reward will be giving our students a chance to succeed.”

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