The seeds of Laura Ramirez-Drain’s campaign to represent Hunter Mill District on the Fairfax County School Board took root after her son was diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
Ramirez-Drain, whose two sons have now both graduated from Fairfax County Public Schools, says that she noticed her younger son had a slight delay in his learning development when he was in elementary and middle school, but she did not have a name for his challenges until he reached high school.
Armed with a diagnosis, she met with a counselor at her son’s school in the hopes of getting him on an individualized education plan so that he could receive special education services, such as the ability to have more time to take standardized tests.
However, Ramirez-Drain says that, even though she had a clinical report confirming her son’s ADHD diagnosis and he was taking Adderall to manage the condition, the school determined that he was not eligible for an IEP, because he had still passed all his classes with acceptable grades.
One of the criteria FCPS students must meet to be eligible for special education services due to a health impairment, such as ADHD, is that the student’s “limited strength, vitality, or alertness” must have a significant adverse impact on their “functional academic performance,” according to a form used by FCPS to make decisions regarding IEPs.
Still, Ramirez-Drain believes her son should have been able to receive services.
“I speak English. My husband is an American. We didn’t have the resources when we asked for it,” Ramirez-Drain said. “…Imagine all the other people that don’t have time or don’t have the resources to ask, so this is one of the reasons why I’m running.”
Ramirez-Drain is one of two candidates vying for the Hunter Mill District school board seat after its current occupant, Pat Hynes, announced in January that she will not seek reelection when the entire 12-member board goes on the ballot on Nov. 5.
While county school board candidates run as independents, they can accept endorsements, and the Fairfax County Republican Committee officially put its support behind Ramirez-Drain on Apr. 23 when it announced its slate of school board candidates.
Her opponent, former U.S. Department of Education worker Melanie Meren, was endorsed by the Fairfax County Democratic Committee on May 23.
An engineer and marketing professional who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico in 1999 and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2008, Ramirez-Drain has put her Latina identity front-and-center in her campaign, distributing materials in both English and Spanish and emphasizing her work supporting Latino students and entrepreneurs on her website.
Ramirez-Drain says she grew up in an environment where women were expected to focus on motherhood. Even her mother gave her dolls to play with, while her brothers got toy cars that they could construct.
Despite that, she went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering and launched a career at the software company Hewlett-Packard, which later asked her to relocate to the U.S. since more bilingual workers were needed in the southeast.
Ramirez-Drain moved to Atlanta, Ga., in 1999 on an A1 visa, a difficult process for someone who had never lived on her own before, but later that year, she met the man who became her husband, and after a stint in Alabama, they settled down in Reston 14 years ago.
When her first son was born, Ramirez-Drain took a professional break to collaborate with two other female engineers to start the nonprofit Alcanzando Metas Foundation, which provided mentoring, college preparation, and other programs to support Hispanic youths interested in math, science, and technology.
Over six years, the foundation helped over 200 Latino students in the Washington, D.C., area graduate from high school.
Though she had to close the foundation about six weeks ago due to funding challenges, Ramirez-Drain hopes to restart it someday, and she remains passionate about encouraging Latino students, especially women, to pursue science, math, engineering, and technology careers.
“The change that I believe I did was to open their eyes [that] there exists the possibility that you can develop things, be an engineer and create things,” Ramirez-Drain said.
Ramirez-Drain returned to work once her children entered elementary school. After working for corporations like Verizon and AT&T, she started the Vienna-based agency Random Words Marketing Group, where she currently serves as CEO.
In addition to running the Alcanzando Metas Foundation, Ramirez-Drain has been active in the Latino community as the producer and host of a bilingual radio talk show called Café Latino, and she formed the Hispanic Professional Women’s Association in 2004 to “provide networking and career support” to professional women, according to her campaign website.
Ramirez-Drain hopes to continue that advocacy as a member of the Fairfax County School Board by drawing attention to concerns shared by Latino and other immigrant families, such as the need for improved communication between schools and parents that she says is the main challenge.
“One of the main problems with the Latinos I face is…the parents don’t know how to help the students,” Ramirez-Drain said. “So, we need to dedicate more resources, meaning people full-time in the school that reach the parents.”
At the same time, she does not want voters to assume she is only interested in helping Latino students and parents, citing her top priorities as ensuring student success, supporting teachers, creating more oversight for how the school system spends tax dollars, and protecting parents’ rights.
While she believes Fairfax County Public Schools should support all students and help those who are less privileged, Ramirez-Drain says that the One Fairfax resolution adopted by the school board in 2017 should be reviewed, particularly with regard to the boundary adjustment policy changes proposed by FCPS staff at a school board work session on July 22.
Approved by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors as well as the school board, One Fairfax commits county staff and leaders to considering “racial and social equity” when making policy and program decisions.
The draft boundary adjustment policy presented to the school board on July 22 suggested that equitable access to educational opportunities be incorporated into the criteria that can trigger a school boundary change, along with capacity issues, attendance islands, the opening or closing of a school, and emergencies caused by natural disasters.
School board members have denied that the policy revision is being conducted with specific boundary changes in mind or as a prelude to implementing practices such as the busing used to desegregate schools by some jurisdictions in the U.S.
Still, the prospect of change has some parents worried about the implications that a new policy might have on their children, and Ramirez-Drain is sympathetic to their concerns.
“As a naturalized citizen from Mexico, I am highly in favor of equity for all people,” Ramirez-Drain said. “I am not in favor [of] making huge changes to the schools that students currently attend, busing students to different neighbors, and separating students from the community of students and families that have supported them throughout their education.”
Ramirez-Drain argues that gaps in student achievement can be effectively closed by addressing each student’s individual needs, rather than through broad policy changes, noting that schools with high levels of poverty in their student population already receive federal funding with their Title I designations.
“Whatever we have done up to now is not helping them,” Ramirez-Drain said. “…So, I think, instead of trying to do equity for everybody, let’s evaluate what are the real needs for different groups of students, and we’d help them.”