Angélica Ramsey knows that at any moment she is 72 hours from getting fired. For Ramsey, that’s the life of a superintendent.
Before that were to happen, she knows she has unapologetically fought to make sure all students in Fort Worth ISD received access to the education they deserve. She realizes that approach might ruffle some feathers.
Ramsey spoke March 8 at the Women’s Policy Forum luncheon about the challenges the school district faces — from reading to teacher support to vouchers — and how the community can come together for the children of Fort Worth.
Her talk coincided with International Women’s Day, and she spent some time discussing the power of women in leadership – and her own leadership style in the district these first six months.
“Women make stuff happen,” she said. “We’re always going to find a way. We don’t quit. We work with people and we do things with people, not to them. We shine when we bring others along and we champion for other women, because we understand that we shouldn’t be fighting for small crumbs, because if we band together we can do so much more.”
She has a big task ahead of her. Enrollment in Fort Worth ISD is declining — which has a direct impact on funding the district receives — data on reading scores show children falling behind, teachers are feeling burnt out and the state legislature is expected to call a special session to push vouchers through, which would also have a direct impact on the district.
Outside factors hit inside the school district
During a campus visit earlier this school year, Ramsey met a couple of custodians. She started talking to them in Spanish and eventually introduced herself.
“Es la jefa,” one colleague said to another. “That’s the boss.”
The other woman didn’t believe it. She referred to Ramsey as a “nice lady.”
“In her mind, the CEO is a man,” Ramsey said, reflecting on the interaction. “For her to see someone that looks like her, speaks her language, grew up similarly, she was like, ‘This is so good for our girls.’ And I said, ‘I think it’s awesome for the boys, too.’”
These are the kind of conversations Ramsey’s had in her stakeholder engagement meetings in her first six months on the job. She wanted to meet with people on all levels of the organizational chart in the school district to figure out what it is doing well and where it needs improvement.
Many of those conversations went back to the inequities students face because Fort Worth, like other places, is a city tackling those issues.
“Every societal ill has now turned into, and it always has, the responsibility of the schoolhouse,” Ramsey said. “Kids don’t have food to eat, we’ll feed you. If you don’t have a coat in the winter, we’ll get you one.”
Issues in the city lead to issues in the school. If there isn’t affordable housing in Fort Worth, people will move to the suburbs and send their kids to schools there. If there is crime in the neighborhood, police activity often interrupts school. Poverty in the city means poverty in the schools.
Ramsey hears a lot of negative talk about the school district. Fort Worth ISD is a popular punching bag.
“We’re an easy target because teachers are nice people who are predominantly women,” she said. “And there isn’t a teacher in the city, the state or the country that wakes up and is like ‘I’m gonna mess up some kids today.’ Every teacher gets up and says, ‘I’m going to do my best today to help the students under my care.’ And every parent sends their best child to school. But then society kind of hits.”
Literacy is a community fight
Literacy starts before students even step into the classroom for the first time, Ramsey said. Not every mother in Fort Worth knows the value of reading to their child as early as pregnancy. Or how singing to their child helps brain development.
Adults in Fort Worth who don’t have an education but have children are not always able to give their kids the literacy tools they need either, Ramsey said. If parents don’t use “proper” or academic language at home, their children won’t learn it in the home.
Ramsey hears a lot that children in Fort Worth can’t read, she said. First, that’s not true, she said and, second, it’s a community issue.
The way students are tested in reading — which is how data like third-grade reading scores are collected — has a knowledge gap. To explain this, Ramsey gave an example that she loves baseball and knows the sport’s jargon and statistics.
So, if Ramsey was given a paragraph to read about baseball and she understood the context, she could read something above her reading level.
“But if I’m a child that has never been exposed to some of the things that our students have to read, then you’re reading something with 75% of the words covered up,” she said. “Imagine trying to make meaning when you don’t actually understand between 50 and 75% of the words in a paragraph or so. Those are the things that we need to fix as a system.”
How the community can support schools
Trauma and mental health issues in students is leading to behavior issues that Ramsey hasn’t seen in her years in education. It’s one of the issues she discussed that is causing more teachers to leave the profession.
“I have never in my career seen more 5 year olds, not even just in Fort Worth, just generally, more 5 year olds tear up a classroom,” Ramsey said. “There is so much need in mental health that we need assistance with.”
That assistance can come with community partnerships and bringing professionals into the schools so it’s accessible to students, Ramsey said.
Additionally, teachers are under more attacks, she said.
“The attack over and over of being called groomers, saying that they’re indoctrinating children, that’s affecting them,” Ramsey said. “They get into this field to help children and they are told that they are horrible people.”
Teachers in Fort Worth need to know the community supports them, she said. That can include volunteering at a school, starting a Parent Teacher Association, offering to make copies or read to a class.
“At some point we probably need to vote differently because every year it seems like teachers have to do more things,” Ramsey said.
Ramsey knows there are cultural barriers to break down to increase participation in schools. She said specifically in Latino households, if your child is clean, behaves and does their homework, then the parent is doing their job. It’s seen as disrespectful to go into the school and question it.
She hopes to see that change, but she knows that comes with trust. The district wants to work with churches and community centers to build trust and involvement.
“We also know that we represent our governmental agency and in many of our communities, I’m not sure the government has been really good to all of us all the time,” she said.
The superintendent knows Fort Worth ISD is not where it wants to be. There still is a system where ZIP codes far too closely correlate to academic outcomes. She knows the district didn’t create that system.
She knows enrollment is down. She knows what reading data says.
But she also knows the district has a responsibility to work around systems in place and build a strategic plan that looks to the future and helps every child get the education they deserve.
In doing so, she hopes that when she inevitably has to leave Fort Worth ISD it doesn’t matter because there are systems in place that put students first.
She wants Fort Worth to know this: its students are doing amazing work.
“When you hear, especially on social media, someone saying something negative, don’t think of me. I’m a big girl, I can take it,” Ramsey said. “Think of that kindergartner that’s trying to learn to read. Think about that eighth grader that moved here from a war-torn country and they just got here. Think about that teacher that is struggling in a third-grade class every day. Do they deserve that? Instead tell them the great things happening.”
Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.