Melito Ramirez

Melito Ramirez’s work as an intervention specialist in Walla Walla and more has garnered accolades from Washington state education officials.

Melito Ramirez’s phone had just used up its charge Monday night when his image appeared on the laptop computer screen in front of him.

Here it was, the moment he and the other candidates had been practicing for — Ramirez was being announced as the “2020 Classified Employee of the Year” by Washington state’s top education organization, Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The pool of nine candidates had been virtually waiting in a Zoom room while the annual ceremony — like similar ceremonies this year of the coronavirus pandemic – was happening live on Facebook, Ramirez said this morning.

“I was trying to follow the ceremony on my phone and right at the time they were to announce it, my phone went dead. Then my face popped up on Facebook. I was shocked.”

Ramirez, an intervention specialist for Walla Walla Public Schools, was named the regional classified employee of 2020 by Pasco-based Education Service District 123 in April, something that came as no surprise to those who work with him.

In letters of nomination for the award, Ramirez was recognized for his ability to build strong relationships with students and their parents, using clear language and honest conversations to discover root problems and find solutions, state education officials said.

In an education career that began in 1981, Ramirez has worked in both Walla Walla and College Place school districts in a variety of jobs. For the past 12 years, he’s worked at Walla Walla High School, helping students who face barriers to completing their education, including depression and substance addiction.

Those efforts include building relationships and facilitating communication between students, families and teachers.

“Melito is almost like our own pied piper,” Ron Higgins said today.

Higgins is Wa-Hi’s principal and his office is two doors down from Ramirez’s, from where every kind of music seeps out and — when school is open for in-person learning — students can be spied getting a snack.

“The laughter just exudes,” Higgins said, a smile in his own voice.

At times, however, Ramirez has his door shut as he helps a student through trauma and loss. The intervention specialist’s knack for finding balance between the good times and the bad is what brings students of every kind to that office, Higgins said.

“He just really bridges the gap of making school the right fit for so many students. I am so fortunate to have him on my staff.”

Superintendent Wade Smith added to the choir, noting Ramirez fully models the district’s core commitments around equity, access and engagement.

“It is safe to say that Melito’s influence has been instrumental in our district’s ability to close the graduation and dropout gap for Latinx students. I can not think of anyone more deserving of this incredible recognition.”

Ramirez’s work goes beyond the Wa-Hi campus. In 2018, he became the first Latino to be appointed to the College Place Public Schools board. He’s worked with migrant families, with backgrounds similar to his own, in night school to help adults improve their English skills, study first aid, citizenship and viticulture.

All those experiences, however, failed to prepare him for Monday’s announcement, Ramirez said.

“You can’t find the words … I’m really humbled to represent our community and my students.”

With announcements posted on social media after the ceremony, Ramirez quickly began hearing from former students, he said.

“They were congratulating me and they were all sharing things they remembered. You bump into students years later and they are professionals, they are taking care of their families. And to know I might have had a little impact on that …”

No one goes into education to get rich or garner recognition, but instead to help children. That’s the reward and the real retirement bonus, he added.

“I imagine myself, 80 years old, sitting in a rocking chair and having my morning coffee and remembering all these things.”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 509-526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers health, social services and city government in Milton-Freewater, Athena and Weston in the Walla Walla Valley.