Author Archives: Woody

Alma Exley Scholars Share Experience at UConn

Students of color in UConn’s Neag School of Education are fortunate that their predecessors established an organization called Leadership in Diversity.

Almost five years ago, students formed the group to build a support system for future teachers of color at the university. It’s a mentoring program intended to give students the tools and networks that will enable them to succeed in their careers as educators.

Orlando Valentin Jr., left, and Justis Lopez, fourth from right, with LID Executive Board members, LID alumni and LID faculty advisors.

The organization recently held its third annual conference on the Storrs campus, and two Alma Exley Scholars were presenters. Justis Lopez (whom we honored in 2015) and Orlando Valentin Jr. (2016) shared their experience and insights at the meeting. Attending, in addition to UConn students, were high school students, students from other universities, teachers, administrators and Neag faculty members.

Orlando Valentin Jr. leading workshop.

Valentin, in his second year as a fourth grade teacher at Pulaski School in Meriden, led an interactive workshop on the topic strategies for community building. He talked about the importance of fostering positive relationships across various communities in order to be an effective educator and, more important, a caring human. He sought to give the future teachers the resources and strategies that will enable them to build rapport across various communities from the classroom to the school, families and the community.

“Fostering positive relationships across numerous communities can have a lasting impact on students for generations to come,” he said, “and can break vicious cycles set in place by various institutions.”

Justis Lopez, center, sharing his ‘open mic’ techniques.

Lopez returned to UConn from the Bronx, where he is teaching social studies at Urban Assembly School of Applied Math and Science. His topic was “shifting the systematic paradigm through the open mic movement in education.”

Lopez is a pioneer in the open mic movement. Once a week, during a free period, students gather in Lopez’s classroom to express themselves at a microphone by telling stories, reciting poems, rapping, or singing songs. In the event at UConn, he led the students in participating in a mock open-mic program. Joining Lopez were several students from Manchester High School, where he introduced the program in his first two years of teaching before moving to the Bronx.

Afterwards, he drove to Eastern Connecticut State University, where he introduced more future teachers to the open mic concept.

Manchester High School students and teachers at the conference.

Valentin said he wanted to support the program because it had been so helpful to him as an undergraduate. He was one of the group’s first members when it was formed in 20xx. An especially helpful activity, he said, was the Mentor Dinner that he attended while working on his master’s degree. At the dinner, he was matched with Tyrone Richardson, principal of Betances STEM School in Hartford. “I’m grateful that the program gave me the opportunity to spend quality time with an outstanding educator,” he said. “Leadership in Diversity continues to provide a strong foundation for future teachers of color.”

More Black Teachers Needed To Remedy Achievement Gap

The achievement gap between white students and students of color has been vexing Connecticut educators for some time.

Many educators are working hard to correct this disparity. In fact, our own Dr. Miguel Cardona (1998 Alma Exley Scholar) has led a legislative commission that has addressed the issue and offered recommendations. He has also worked with the State Department of Education to help develop a statewide approach to the achievement gap. But the problem persists.

Disparities Facing Black and White Students

Now Connecticut Voices for Children, a New Haven-based research and advocacy group, has published a report that describes in detail the disparities that face black and white students as they go to school each day. The report decries the disparate educational outcomes and prescribes a number of remedies.

One of the key findings of the report is especially interesting to the Alma Exley Scholarship family. The report declares, “Access to teachers of the same race differs dramatically, with black students much less likely to have teachers of their own ethnicity.”

According to the report, only 3.5 percent of teachers in the state are black, while black students constitute 13 percent of the student population. (The report just focuses on the disparities between black and non-Hispanic white students. It does not refer to other students of color.)

Black Students Have Greater Success With Black Teachers

The report concludes that the dearth of black teachers matters because black students achieve higher levels of success when they have had a black teacher.1 As the report says, “By bolstering student confidence and alleviating feelings of marginalization, black teachers can act as a protective factor against negative experiences like punitive discipline policies or racist comments.”

The impact of black teachers is said to be highest for black male students from low-income households.2 In one study, researchers found that black male students who had a black teacher in elementary school were up to 39 percent less likely to drop out of high school.3

Efforts Under Way at State Department of Education

Connecticut Voices for Children recommends increasing the number of black teachers and expanding support for minority teachers. The organization applauds the State Department of Education’s Talent Development Office and the Minority Teacher Recruitment Policy Oversight Council, which have been working to increase the number of teachers of color in the state.

Given the positive correlation between having a black teacher and the success of black students, the hiring, training, and support of teachers of color should be a priority. Unfortunately, the 2018 budget of the Talent Development Office has been cut by 89 percent. Hence, Voices for Children calls for the restoration of the office’s funding.

Other Factors in Divergent Experiences of Black and White Students

As the report confirms, the dearth of black teachers is just one of the factors in the vastly different school experiences encountered by black and white students. And these factors result in vastly different outcomes.

For example:

  • Suspension ratesare four times higher for black than white students.
  • Chronic absenteeism ratesare two and a half times higher for black students.
  • Access to advanced classes is significantly more limited, with black students constituting only 7 percent of students enrolled in gifted and talented programs.

Initiatives Recommended

In addition to urging the hiring and supporting of more black teachers, the report recommends a number of other initiatives. These include:

  • Expanding data sharing on school discipline and attendance to identify chronically absent students;
  • Improving anti-bias training for school personnel;
  • Increasing school funding to districts with high minority populations.

Read the full report.

Connecticut Voices for Children’s mission is to promote the wellbeing of all of Connecticut’s children and families by identifying and advocating for strategic public investments and wise public policies. Connecticut Voices advances its mission through high-quality research and analysis, policy development, strategic communications, and establishment of a sustainable and powerful voice for children.

1The Albert Shanker Institute, 2015, The State of Teacher Diversity in American Education.

2 Seth Gershenson, Cassandra Hart, M. D., Constance A. Lindsay, and Nicolas W. Papageorge. The Long-Run Impacts of Same-Race Teachers 3 Ibid.

Violet Jiménez Sims Elected to New Britain Board of Education

Alma Exley Scholars are having a big impact — in the classroom and beyond.

Congratulations to Violet Sims, who has been elected to the New Britain Board of Education on the Democratic ticket. Taking her seat on the board will be the culmination of years of civic engagement in New Britain, where she has been a tireless advocate for better schools.

Ms. Sims came to the United States from the Dominican Republic at the age of six. After graduating from E.C. Goodwin Technical High School in New Britain, she earned three degrees from the University of Connecticut, a B.A. in Theater Studies, an M.A. in Higher Education Administration, and a Sixth-Year degree in Curriculum and Instruction with a concentration in Bilingual and Multicultural Education. Currently, she is a doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership at the University of Bridgeport.

After teaching at New Britain High School for 10 years and Manchester High School for three,  she took a position this year as assistant principal at the Montessori Magnet School in Hartford.

She and her husband, D’Andre Sims, a mathematics teacher at Manchester High School, have two daughters in the New Britain Schools.

I’m grateful for her involvement in the Alma Exley Scholarship Program as a member of the Selection Committee. Since being chosen as an Alma Exley Scholar in 2008, she has been a faithful attendee at our annual receptions, honoring and congratulating her newest colleagues.

Deeply involved in the New Britain community, she is a member of the Executive Board of the local branch of the NAACP. She is president of the Diaspora Multicultural Society, Inc., which is New Britain’s first multicultural-themed social club. And she was the first president and a founding member of Altrusa International of Greater Hartford, a service organization with the purpose of empowering women and improving literacy.

Looking ahead to her service on the Board of Education, Ms. Sims said, “I hope to advocate for funding, and the responsible use of funds, so that New Britain families and students receive the best education and services that can be offered by the school district, regardless of neighborhood, home language, or ability.”

As a former student in the New Britain Public Schools, a former educator in the district, and the parent of children who attend the schools, Ms. Sims brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to her position on the Board of Education. I’m sure she will be a strong advocate for the children of New Britain and for the betterment of the entire community.

Please join me in congratulating her at

– Woody Exley