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2005 Inspirational Young Alumna: Enriqueta Ramirez '00

Enriqueta Ramirez '00 in the classroom
Enriqueta Ramirez '00 in the classroom

Science teacher Enriqueta Ramirez ’00 just pulled off another middle-school miracle.

She gave squirt bottles full of water to 30 eighth-graders so they could clean their lab equipment during an experiment, and not a single student dared to spray another student. They knew Ramirez wouldn’t put up with it.

Ramirez sets high expectations from Day One, with consequences for rule-breaking prominently posted in the classroom. She’s not shy about blowing her keychain whistle to get students’ attention. “I hardly crack a smile until October,” she says.

But once she has students’ respect, there’s plenty of fun. Some days she’s egging kids on to throw paper airplanes, with an academic purpose. Ramirez has them pose questions about an experiment on the folded-up paper, and the person who picks it up has to answer.

It’s just one of many creative methods she uses to spark students’ excitement about science at a middle school in a low-income neighborhood of Pomona. “They never do the same thing every day,” says Ramirez.

Ramirez’ commitment to quality teaching in a challenging environment made her a natural choice for Pomona College’s 2005 Inspirational Young Alumni Award.

Ramirez once was a teen-aged mom surviving on minimum-wage work and welfare. Today, she is a one-woman magnet school, drawing students into science work with a mix of high expectations and fun activities. She maintains her classroom commitments despite a hectic home life, raising four kids (ages 5 to 15) as a single mom.

She loves teaching science because it’s such a hands-on subject and Ramirez is constantly on her feet, moving from student to student to monitor their work. “She always checks that we get it,” says student Tlaoli Garcia.

Her personal dress code epitomizes her approach: Ramirez always wears a white lab coat in class, showing how serious she is about science. “I’m a nerd and I don’t care,” says Ramirez.

But you’ll also notice big, funky earrings dangling from her lobes, showing her fun side. She’s the kind of teacher who thinks nothing of handing over her cell phone to the students helping her after school and telling them to order a pizza for themselves.

Sharing the background and culture of most of her students helps. She speaks to them in Spanglish and they tell her she reminds them of their mother. Some of her students face big problems at home, and she hears more than her share of heartbreaking stories.

”I have a soft spot for people who suffer,” says Ramirez. “I’ve been there, done that.”

Growing up in Ontario as the oldest of four siblings, Ramirez always loved school. “It was the highlight of the day for me,’’ she says. “I just never gave up on that.”

But the teen years brought trouble. She wound up out on her own, a young mother struggling to survive. Still, she stayed in school and even took Advanced Placement classes, earning her high school diploma in 1991. She worked minimum wage jobs and collected welfare, living on rice and beans.

A turning point came at an unexpected place, the giant truck stop in Ontario where she worked as a cashier. Usually, the lonely truckers talked her ear off. Then Ramirez met one who did some listening. “You’re too smart to be working here,” he told her. “You need to go to school.”

Those words stuck with her. In time, she enrolled in community college, where her instructors quickly saw her potential. One encouraged her to join a summer program at Pomona College, where she worked with Biology Professor Karen Parfitt.

Soon, she had enrolled as a full-time student at Pomona, raising two kids at the same time. She credits Pomona with instilling in her a commitment to excellence in the classroom. “I’m rigorous with the kids,” she says. “I have high expectations. That comes from Pomona.”

Still, her Pomona years certainly weren’t easy. Balancing school and parenting was so stressful she would break out in hives, and she didn’t have time for the extracurricular activities typical of Pomona students.

After earning her biology degree, Ramirez planned to become a doctor, but she needed money for her family. She decided to go into teaching with an emergency credential.

She visited Pomona Unified School District to drop off an application, and wound up meeting the man in charge of recruiting teachers. He unexpectedly offered her an on-the-spot interview, and she had to swallow her chewing gum as she headed to the office. She was soon offered a job and was asked where she wanted to teach.

She decided on middle school, and told them to send her to the school that needed the most help. They sent her to John Marshall Middle School.

She was no star at the start. Her first year was “terrible.” The classes she took over had been through a series of substitute teachers, and the students were bouncing off the walls. Her teaching style didn’t help. She relied on college-style lectures with an overhead projector, trying to cram her knowledge into students’ minds. ”I learned really quickly you don’t teach middle school that way,” she says.

So she decided to go back to school, attending Claremont Graduate University for her teaching credential and master’s degree in education. That training plus more experience transformed her teaching style. Now she heads the science department at Marshall and was chosen as the school’s Teacher of the Year in 2003.

Students like her so much that the threat of getting removed from her class has become a powerful disciplinary tool. Nobody wants to miss out. “She makes learning fun,” says student David Gonzalez.