Author Archives: Woody

Fairfield U Student Honored As 2017 Alma Exley Scholar

Chastity Berrios Hernandez, a senior at Fairfield University, was honored as the Alma Exley Scholar for 2017 at a reception at the Mark Twain House on May 3. Attendees included Ms. Berrios’s family, supporters of the Alma Exley Scholarship Program, educators from Fairfield University, and several previous recipients.

Four Alma Exley Scholars honored Chastity Berrios Hernandez with their presence at the reception, from left, Justis Lopez, Orlando Valentin Jr., Dr. Miguel Cardona and Chi-Ann Lin. Kaye Paddyfote, second from left, a high school student, spoke at the reception.

Keynote speaker Orlando Valentin Jr. offered an inspiring message, reflecting on lessons learned in his first year of teaching at Casimir Pulaski Elementary School in Meriden. Also speaking was Kaye Paddyfote, a senior at Conard High School, West Hartford, who shared her personal experience in making the case for greater diversity in the teaching profession.

Ms. Berrios was honored for her outstanding record of academic achievement and community service at Fairfield University.  She is an English major with minors in Educational Studies, Spanish, and Latin American and Caribbean Studies. She plans to teach in a public elementary school after earning her master’s degree next year at Fairfield.

She came to Connecticut from Puerto Rico at the age of nine with her mother, brother and two sisters. She devoted herself to learning English, did well in school, and graduated from High School in the Community, New Haven, in 2013.

At Fairfield, she has served as a Learning Service Associate at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith & Public Life. In that capacity, she has facilitated discussions on service learning among students at the university. She is also a resident assistant, providing guidance to 45 first-year students.

During her sophomore year, she conducted educational research in Nicaragua. And she has served as a teacher assistant at the Summer Institute for the Gifted in Princeton, N.J.

She has served as a Spanish interpreter, collaborating with nursing students in a fall-prevention program at a Bridgeport community center. Her rapport with the program clients was so exceptional that state officials chose to make a video of her work as an example of best practices.

From 2011 to 2015, she was a manager at a Dunkin Donuts in New Haven, working 15-20 hours a week while maintaining a full course load at the university.

Ms. Berrios was highly recommended by university faculty, who describe her as “deeply committed to becoming a change agent as an urban educator.” She has a strong commitment to community service, and she has demonstrated the ability to teach in traditional and non-traditional settings in two languages.

She is an activist focused on making a difference for students, especially English language learners. In her courses, she has been intent on helping her fellow students to understand the inequities of schooling in Connecticut, convincing some of her classmates to join her in working against racism and classism.

Desi Nesmith Shares Leadership Principles at National Forum

As principal of Metacomet School in Bloomfield, Desi Nesmith led a dramatic turnaround in academic performance. Within two years, third-grade students advanced from below average to well above the statewide average in reading, writing and mathematics.

Now, as chief school turnaround officer at the Connecticut Department of Education, he is sharing his strategies with struggling schools across the state.

And recently, he stepped onto a national stage to explain his leadership principles to educators from across the country. He was one of the speakers at a conference in New Orleans sponsored by the Milken Family Foundation, which is dedicated to advancing educator effectiveness.

Lowell Milken of the Milken Family Foundation, left, with Desi Nesmith at the Milken Education Awards conference.

Mr. Nesmith received the prestigious Milken Educator Award in 2014 in recognition of his accomplishments at Metacomet School.

Upon being named principal in 2011, he took over a school where students lagged behind state averages for performance in reading, writing and mathematics. He immediately established high expectations for academic performance.

By 2013, 65 percent of third graders met the state reading goal, compared to 57 percent statewide. Seventy-one percent met the goal for writing, outpacing the state average of 60 percent. And 71 percent met the goal for mathematics, above the state average of 62 percent.

As Mr. Nesmith explained in his presentation in New Orleans, he was among the school leaders in Bloomfield who made a commitment to academic excellence. They focused on strengthening academics, promoting discipline and good behavior, and forging ties with parents and the community. They involved parents as well as community organizations such as the local historical society, the Rotary Club, a local bank, and a local weekly newspaper. The district also started new after-school programs and provided additional training for teachers.

This recognition was another milestone in a remarkable career in education. We honored him as the 2000 Alma Exley Scholar while at the University of Connecticut. After earning his master’s degree in 2002, he joined the faculty of Mayberry School in East Hartford, where he was named school Teacher of the Year. Next he advanced to leadership positions in Hartford and in his hometown of Bloomfield. Since 2015, he has served as chief school turnaround officer at the State Department of Education, taking on some of the most demanding educational challenges in schools across the state.

Congratulations to Desi for this most recent honor.

Justis Lopez: Teacher And Entrepreneur

Justis Lopez, in his second year of teaching, is well-known throughout Manchester High School for his creative pedagogy. But he is also making a name for himself beyond Manchester for his business acumen.

Mr. Lopez, whom we honored in 2015, has created a new humanities class called Rhythm of the World. The class is about how activists are changing the world through art-forms such as poetry, street art, hip-hop DJ-ing and photography.

This course builds on the “Open Mic” sessions he started in his first year, when he invited students to come to his classroom during their free period every Friday to rap, recite poems,  sing or whatever.

Now he is making a name for himself in the wider world outside of school through his business, Just Experience LLC. The multi-faceted company’s services include providing music for weddings and block parties, conducting school and college workshops, and supporting charities.

I was happy to see that Mr. Lopez’s reputation has reached the Hartford Courant. The newspaper recently published a story about him and his impact in the classroom and world of business, and I’m pleased to share it here.

  • Woody Exley