Ramon Morales

St. Clement's Parish School Headmaster Ramon Morales.

Ramon Morales may be the worldliest headmaster to run a parochial school.

It's not that he's not devout; rather, he's spent his life traveling the world with his family. It's easier to count how many of the world's almost 200 countries Morales has not been to.

"Roughly 40" he hasn't visited, he says, "I've been blessed."

Before he was named the new headmaster of St. Clement's Parish School on Aug. 1 - before he worked at international schools in El Salvador, Panama and Singapore, before he traveled the world to learn its languages, before he broke his femur jumping hurdles after coming within 2 seconds of qualifying for the Mexican Olympic team - Morales picked strawberries in California as a teenager and grew up the son of a migrant farm worker.

He moved with his father, mother and 10 siblings to Ventura, Calif., when he was 9, and lived in a neighborhood with a number of French Canadian families where French came easily and English became his third language.

Morales says he first became hooked on teaching in Taiwan, where he taught Spanish conversation to members of the Board of Foreign Trade when he was 22.

Morales, now 51, says coming from international schools across the world to the post at St. Clement's Parish School, a private parochial school, may not be as radical a change as one might think, given the holistic view of education the school takes.

"St. Clement's impressed me from day one," he says. "The program they have here is unique in the entire country, if not the world."

What impressed him most was the school's values program, and its outdoor program - one of the first in the nation when the school first opened, the program culminates in eighth grade with a rustic, backpacking adventure in Estes Park, Colo.

Most recently, Morales was assistant headmaster of the El Salvador American School, where he and his family lived in a beach house among coconut palms. Morales's first son was born in Singapore and his second in Panama.

He has bachelor's degrees in French and International Relations, a master's degree in Education, a certificate for postgraduate studies in Language Development, and he's working on a Ph.D.

He is proficient in Spanish, English, French, Italian and Mandarin.

Morales sat down with El Paso Inc. in his new office at St. Clement's to talk about why he wants to forge partnerships with businesses, the impact of the growing number of students from Juárez, and why kids in U.S. schools may not be falling behind those overseas as much as we think.


Q: Has the school been impacted by the migration from Juárez?

Yes. The community in Juárez is a community that is under siege. You have families in Juárez who have had to leave their home. We have a number of those families here, who are looking for the best education for their children.

Q: But are you also seeing an impact from increased competition from schools like Tecnológico de Monterrey, which recently opened its first prep school in El Paso?

We have to always be clear and honest that competition is healthy. We are a world-class school, but we can't rest on our laurels. We have to continue to innovate and improve.

Q: Is enrollment at St. Clement's up or down?

It has diminished. Right now, there are 354 kids enrolled at St. Clement's, but we have lost population because of the economy. We think that, certainly, the competition may take some of our kids.

But when I say competition is healthy, I mean there is room for quality schools. My vision is for this school to be recognized among the best in the world. I bring international experience to the position that I hope will help guide St. Clement's in its curriculum - offering more languages, for example - in its use of technology, in its community service component, that we can truly become a world-class school.

Q: Technology? Are schools taking full advantage of it?

In general terms, technology has not been maximized in schools. We are still a long way. Technology allows us to not only manipulate how we deliver instruction, but also to help us process what we get from kids.

For example, what we do here is we have clickers. A teacher will project a question, and the clicker, as a remote control, allows the students to select an answer.

All the answers go to a central system in the computer and the teacher can tabulate the results immediately. If I notice a lot of the kids answered the questions wrong, I can act immediately. I don't have to take the quiz home to correct it.

I was in a science classroom here a couple days ago and I saw the teacher using the Discovery Channel show "Mythbusters." The kids had to come up with some sort of myth to test and see if it is real or not.

Q: Speaking of myth busting, many worry that students in the U.S. are falling behind those in other countries such as China. From your experience with education overseas, do you believe that is the case?

It is a fact that the U.S. system has not been able to demonstrate the same level of achievement. But what's the myth here? The United States is one of the few countries in the world that proposes to educate everybody.

Singapore, China, Japan - they select, they filter the kids. What that means is the kids in elementary school who perform at a certain level get to go on to the better middle school; if they don't perform as well, they go to the medium middle school; and if they are not very academic, they go to the low academic middle school.

So already there is a separation of the students by talent and performance. Once you get out of middle school, it's your performance that determines your high school. When the international test takes place, who do you think takes the test? It isn't those kids who got separated.

We don't do that. When a public school gives a test here, you put everybody in; that includes kids who have language proficiency difficulties, children with learning issues and behavior issues as well as those intellectual, gifted kids.

Also, the amount of hours that students spend in school in those countries is tremendous. It is easily about 50-percent more. The young people, especially in Asia, don't go to work. But here, many 16-year-olds want a job because they can get a car. Most countries you have to be 18 or even 21 to be able to drive. These are things that are not brought into the equation when we compare the educational systems.

Yes, other countries have moved ahead. They are performing at the highest levels, they have more who are proficient in engineering and science, and really have more success with those kids, but they are leaving behind a bunch of other kids.

The United States has a commitment to give a basic education to everybody. Our country, the United States of America, truly is the best education in the world.

Q: Is this your first experience leading a parish school?

I never worked in a parish school, and I never wanted to work in a parish school because, to me, it was too limiting. Remember, my experience had been almost 20 years of international schools where you have to embrace all faiths and you find a core that is universal.

The universal core values are very important in a school - especially a school like St. Clement's. Having that core, that focus on values, from the youngest to eighth grade it was, to me, a wonderful opportunity to work in a school where children were, every day, thinking about how to better treat each other, how to impact their community, and how to give much more than to receive.

Unfortunately, today many youth are just thinking about "what's in it for me."

The second thing that impressed me about St. Clements Parish School was the outdoor program. It's a fundamental part of the curriculum. I just came back from the eighth grade trip. There's 10 days during the school year where the kids in eighth grade travel by bus to Estes Park, Colo., and they are in rustic cabins for five days getting acclimated to the altitude and the environment.

After five days of learning about nature, survival and hiking, they take their 45-pound backpacks, then go for five days into the wilderness in small groups of eight to 10 kids. It allows them to truly bond and come back with a better appreciation for their lives.

The saddest thing for society is when everybody takes what they have for granted.

Q: If these sorts of extra curricular activities are so important, where does that leave local public schools that have faced major funding cuts and have had to scale back on some enrichment programs?

The tragedy here is that public schools in particular have been forced to cut out what I consider the fundamental enrichment opportunities for kids. The focus for public schools has gone to a purely academic one and, in some cases, they are dealing with behavior, trying to teach kids to get along.

St. Clement's brand is that we are building a lasting future through three approaches: exceptional academics, a strong values program, and extracurricular activities that invite students to truly develop their own potential and their own gifts.

Not all kids are going to be valedictorians. Some are going to do well in academics, but they aren't going to be the top of the class. However, some kids are going to be great artists. They are going to be great athletes.

Q: But many seem pleased with the quality of education offered by local public schools. What benefit does one get by sacrificing part of their income to pay for private school?

It really is a commitment to the future of your child. What's the price for that? What price do we place on helping our children become skilled, knowledgeable, to be ready to handle the rest of their lives?

When families invest the amount of money it takes to come to St. Clement's Parish School, what they get in return is the opportunity for their children to develop the skills, the values, the foundation that will help them succeed when they leave.

Q: What is the tuition?

For pre-K and kindergarten, it's $5,850; first to fifth grade is $8,175; and sixth to eighth grade is $9,330.

I am very much concerned that when we communicate to the community how much families pay, that we always emphasize that we are providing a world-class education at a fraction of the cost that a similar school is doing in Dallas, in Houston, in Austin and in San Antonio.

There is a perception, because El Paso's population isn't at the same economic level, that we ought to charge less. But the reality is that our top students are competing with the top students from all these schools.

Our education system needs to be open to ideas from around the world. We can no longer be parochial in our perspective. That's why I say, in El Paso we will have a world-class school at St. Clement's Parish.

Q: Does tuition cover all the school's expenses?

I would like to say that tuition pays for all of our operational expenses, but it doesn't. Tuition represents between 85 and 90 percent of what we need, and we do rely on annual giving and an endowment.

Another thing that impressed me about the school is it is in incredibly good financial shape. They have no debt and strong assets.

Q: What is the endowment?

Our endowment is currently at $1.9 million.

Q: I understand that for your Ph.D., you are researching how special education programs can also benefit non-special ed kids.

Special education offers a whole variety of strategies that can work with an average student. We are now finding out that we have larger numbers of kids with special needs.

Why is that? Kids are coming into school without having acquired a sense of concentration. Because of technology and the way they are growing up, they don't focus for long periods of time, so it is difficult for them to succeed in the academic environment. There are special education strategies that can help them become more effective learners. For example, special education teachers make the classroom more interactive. Instead of talking at the kids, they involve kids in small groups and use a variety of approaches.

Q: What are some of those?

For example, say you have a child that is at a slower pace. As the teacher, after I have given everybody an activity to do, I can either choose to just watch the kids, or what a special education teacher does, I can identify the kids that are a little bit slower, go to those students and do some one-on-one teaching.

We don't get to see that in the regular classrooms, but we need to look at kids as children who have different levels of understanding, of knowledge, of experience. We are not talking about their intelligence.

We are talking about their ability to assimilate information, process information, then be able to give you back understanding. We used to think of teachers as the ones who knew all the answers and so they gave you the knowledge and you regurgitated it and you get an "A." Today, a teacher has to be more of a companion, a facilitator.

Q: Given your interest in languages, do you plan to expand the language programs at St. Clement's?

I would like to. One of my goals is to start with an after school language club where we do an introduction to several languages. We would have Mandarin, French, probably Italian, and possibly German.

Q: There's a new Brookings study that shows that El Paso is one of only a few cities over the past few years to close the education gap - the difference between the education level of the workforce and the education level demanded by local employers - although the city still remains high on the list. While there's been an emphasis in higher education to close that gap, can elementary, middle and high schools also play a role?

You're right on target. Elementary and secondary schools have not been able to partner with businesses. We don't have that same kind of relationship that higher education has. Businesses see immediately the benefit that they will get when young adults at universities are better trained for their jobs. Elementary and secondary education, you don't see that. There is an investment in the future, and it is a future that is uncertain. I would like to see St. Clement's build relationships with businesses that really value education.

Q: Relationships that go beyond giving money?

There are many levels. Clearly the easiest one is committing monetarily. But secondly is the knowledge that they have. We have businesses that are working with top of the line technology - technology that we can use in education. We have very knowledgeable business people out there who have, whether it's in science and we're talking about the advanced chemistry involved in the oil industry or some other industry, their own academic experience and knowledge of their subjects we can use here. They can come as guest lecturers and partner with our teachers to give them real life experience.

E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at rsgray@elpasoinc.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.