Coffee Break: Why Ramon Griffin Left Law to Change School Discipline

Aug 28, 2019 12:00:00 AM


As a youth in Ford Heights, Illinois, Ramon Griffin grew up asking hard questions. Why did his ZIP code have so many schools on the academic watch list? Why did his community have so few resources, while the ZIP code next door had commended schools? 

Today, he continues to confront difficult topics, from how to reduce the disproportionate discipline of Black boys to how to create a positive school culture using trauma-informed education practices. He does this work as the Chief Culture Officer at the University of Chicago Charter School—a public charter school composed of three campuses serving approximately 1,600 students on Chicago’s South Side. 

In honor of his work in education, he recently received a 40 under 40 Award from his alma mater, Dillard University, and the Young and Ambitious Excellence in Education Award from the Metropolitan Board of the Chicago Urban League. I recently had the opportunity to chat with Ramon about his journey, work and thoughts on the opportunities and challenges facing schools in Chicago and across the country.

How do you like to get caffeinated?

I like a nice medium-roast coffee early in the morning because caffeine tends to stay in my system for a long time. I like hot tea later in the day. I’m actually having a large, ginger-peach tea with honey and lemon right now.  

Why does education matter to you?

Education has the potential to be the great equalizer within an unequal and inequitable world. As a lifelong learner, being a purveyor of knowledge is a critical part of my existence as a human being, professional, and aspiring husband and father. Without education, we will perish as a people. It is of utmost significance.  

How did your upbringing influence your career choices? 

I believed—and still believe—in being an advocate for our communities. I grew up in an environment with crime, gang and community violence. Originally I thought I could help my community as a legal counsel to young people. I attended Dillard University, an historically Black College/University, in New Orleans and majored in sociology and criminal justice. After Dillard, I attended law school at the University of Nebraska for one year but decided that law was too reactive for me. I didn’t just want to serve children and families of color after adjudication, I wanted to teach, to mold and to plant seeds and watch them bloom. 

I started in education as a teaching assistant at a KIPP school in Houston in 2009. That decision changed my life. I’ve been in education now for 10 years and I’m currently in the second year of my role as the Chief Culture Officer at the University of Chicago Charter School.

Why does the UChicago Charter School place an emphasis on building a positive school culture? 

UChicago Charter places an emphasis on building a positive school culture because we fundamentally understand its impact on the life trajectories of our students and career trajectories of our teachers and staff. Having a school culture that maintains high expectations while simultaneously holding students accountable is important when building the capacities of our future leaders. 

Research that examines the intersections of school leadership, childhood development and student motivation and engagement are clear on this topic. Positive school cultures are driven by adult behavior and the more knowledgeable and savvy our school personnel are in relation to how they relate to the students that we serve, the better the school climate is going to be. Teachers who feel cared about, challenged professionally, and who are given opportunities for growth will work harder and will most likely stay within your school. [pullquote]Recognize, challenge, empower, encourage and teach students and they will work hard as well.[/pullquote]

What does a positive school culture mean to you?

My foundational belief is that a positive school culture is only as positive as the experiences and opportunities of the students who are traditionally on the margins within those spaces. Those students are our diverse learners, students who are academically and behaviorally challenged, English language learners, and LGBTQ students. A positive school culture is one where all students are seen, heard, and affirmed for being who they are.  The same is true for teachers and staff. A positive school culture is one where learning is of the utmost importance, where leadership opportunities are many, where inclusivity is the norm, and where restoration and healing are leveraged as interventions instead of punitive consequences.

What do you think is the greatest challenge facing schools in large urban districts?

One challenge most urban schools are facing is how do we respond to student discipline in a trauma-responsive and culturally responsive manner, especially when educating children of color. Historically, many urban schools’ disciplinary practices have been complicit in putting students in the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s our responsibility to promote healing and understanding, as well as accountability, for all stakeholders. This is not an easy fix. It will take transformative efforts from school teams and assistance from parents and community members.

What makes you hopeful?

The courage of our children make me hopeful. Their ability to own their identities and be unapologetically who they are is awe-inspiring. I was written off as a youth. My cries for help were always misinterpreted in school; so, I never judge a book by its cover. I listen way more than I speak.

Katelyn Silva

Katelyn Silva is mom to a third grader and an education writer in Providence, Rhode Island. She operates her own education writing consulting business. She was previously the chief communications officer at Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, a nonprofit dedicated to opening intentionally diverse public charter schools. Prior to that, she was the communications director at the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute.

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