Kaliris Salas-Ramirez: A Neuroscientist for Democracy, Racial Equity, and Progressive Education

America’s education policies are tearing at the fabric of progressive practice.  Nowhere is this phenomenon more damaging than in the earliest years.  The kind of schooling that nurtures higher order thinking, curiosity, imagination, and innovation, critical skills for our complex 21st-century world, has become a province of the privileged—a rare species, especially in underserved communities of color.

Kaliris Salas-Ramirez is fighting for her biracial son’s progressive education at Central Park East I, in East Harlem.  The brainchild of Deborah Meier, who describes play as “self-initiated cognitive activity,” CPE I is now a battleground for democracy, pitting parents and teachers against Monika Garg, a principal whose curriculum vitae does not include early childhood education, much less pedagogy driven by progressive philosophy.  She’s also violating the school’s cherished principles of democratic governance.

A neuroscientist who was born and grew up in Puerto Rico, Salas-Ramirez is an assistant professor at the medical school of the City University of New York.  She posts to her Facebook page delicious snippets of the latest findings in brain research: “PET Scan to Visualize Synaptic Density in the Living Brain,” and the work of a peer, at Rockefeller University, who’s unpacking language development by studying birdsong.

As the children, parents, faculty, and administrators  scattered for the summer,  Salas-Ramirez addressed a group of about 30 people at a meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy, which has 13 members, including schools chancellor Carmen Fariña.    Below, you’ll find a lightly edited version of her remarks.


By Kaliris Salas-Ramirez

Eight years ago, when I moved to New York, I made East Harlem my home.  Never did I think that the city would be the place where I would become a mom, much less establish my academic career.

I have had the honor of training some of the best students in NYC—the valedictorians and salutatorians of the city’s top public high schools.  They have taught me just as much as I have taught them about perseverance, acceptance, and excellence.

But even when a committee of academicians and administrators believe that these students have the potential to be anything they want to be, the transition from high school to college is very difficult for our diverse student body.

At first, I thought they were not just studying enough, and questioned our decision to enroll them in our program.  But during the last couple of years, I have learned that those that struggle don’t have the skills to think critically in an integrated way.  They have a tough time thinking creatively when asked to engage in problem-based learning.  Besides their parents, no one else believed in them, and the lack of diversity in their schools limited their ability to engage in high-quality cognitive processing.

Their memories of high school are clouded by numbers, grades on tests, GPAs on report cards and percentiles.  All of which support a fixed mindset and fear of not being the best, which come with exclusive privilege, but don’t get you a bachelor’s degree or a doctorate.

I am now co-president of the Parents Association of my son’s school, actively involved in the governance of his education.  I intentionally enrolled my “blackarican” son in Central Park East I because of the excellent academic achievements that have been well documented by historians and researchers.

I am proud of the fact that a school with such a rich history and extraordinary reputation is in my district, which is also known for its poor and renewal schools. CPE I teaches my son the skills he needs to achieve his goals and supports his sense of competence as an effective human being as he develops into a young man.

My district is plagued by an oppressive system that supports institutionalized racism and segregation.  The New York City Department of Education is not doing anything about it.  On July 8th, our governance board submitted an application for the chancellor’s diversity initiative.  CPE I wants to be a model of an integrated school with a diverse student body that learns to engage in this multi-cultural, complex world, using democratic processes to find their voice.

This is a mission we want to preserve, but one that our principal wants to disregard; she only supports the children of families that support her.

In the last month, I have learned of at least four other public schools where principals are abusing their power for their own agendas.  They have little regard for our devoted teachers and our children.  So much so that the Community Education Council—each of the city’s 32 school districts has one—has been stripped of its power to effect change.   Members are being controlled and manipulated by administrators within the city’s Department of Education, including the superintendent of district 4, who has her own history of abuse of power.

I am not sure how someone who has been tasked with protecting students and teachers supports this behavior.  We ask that you be more transparent in this process.    Although our principal claims to want to stay at CPE I and change, she continues to undermine the culture of our school and dismiss our pedagogy.  She was promoted even though 70 percent of our parent body says she is ineffective.


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