In Their Own Words

“In Their Own Words” — Dr. Santosha Oliver

Santosha Oliver, Ph.D., 2007 honoree, was assistant principal of the O’Brien STEM Academy, East Hartford Public Schools, when she was the guest speaker at the reception on April 8, 2013 to honor Margaret Seclen, the 2013 Alma Exley Scholar. With a doctorate in biomedical science, Dr. Oliver is dedicated to encouraging students, particularly girls, to develop an interest in science and mathematics and pursue higher education. In January 2014 she was appointed to oversee STEM education for the Manchester Public Schools. 

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Following are excerpts from her remarks.

John Quincy Adams, our sixth president, once said, ‘If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.’

Educators certainly inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more – and as educational leaders, we must respond to the tremendous challenges and historic opportunities facing the nation to improve 21st century teaching and learning, and educate the whole child and not just a test score. This holistic view of 21st century teaching and learning combines rigor, technology, and support systems to help students master the 21st century skills required of them to be successful in college and careers.

According to the National Science Foundation, the size of the STEM workforce is not where it needs to be because K-12 students are not succeeding in STEM and undergraduates are leaving the STEM majors. In addition, there are noticeable gaps in STEM access and achievement. A 2012 report by the U.S. Office for Civil Rights concluded that high schools with the highest black and Hispanic enrollments have the least access to STEM courses like Algebra 2, Calculus, and Physics.  We now know that Algebra 2, Physics and Calculus are the gateways to college and beyond. Perhaps this lack of preparation has in part led to the sobering statistic that only 36 percent of students nationally complete a four-year degree in four years. When we break this down, we find that only 20.4 percent of black students and 26.4 percent of Hispanic students complete a four-year degree in four years, compared to 39.3 percent for non-Hispanic white students.

In order for the United States to be globally competitive, innovative, and prepared for new economic challenges, the U.S. must have an innovative educational environment that encourages excellence in STEM subjects, regardless of gender, socioeconomic status or ethnic background.

As educational leaders, we can innovate in education and advocate for courses that will give all students, regardless of their gender, socioeconomic status or ethnic background, an opportunity not only to get into college, but remain in college and go on to earn degrees in various fields to support our infrastructure.

I will be the first to admit this will not be an easy fix. We must explore curriculum development and implementation, school administration, teacher preparation, professional development and educational technology. And we must consider the input from STEM education experts, STEM practitioners, and private companies.

At the O’Brien STEM Academy, we encourage innovative partnerships with industry, higher education and the community. For example, we recently developed a partnership with the University of Connecticut Health Center to expose students to research in developmental biology, higher education, and STEM careers.

We also participate in the Connecticut Invention Convention, which encourages critical thinking skills through innovation and STEM. Our STEM students developed inventions that were judged by STEM practitioners from United Technologies, Stanadyne and other organizations. A dozen students will go on to the state-wide Invention Convention.

We are also developing a relationship with the Connecticut Science Center to support in-school and out-of school activities, such as our annual science fair, which was extended to grades K-6 this year. In addition, our STEM teachers are trained at the Connecticut Science Center to enhance inquiry-based teaching and learning.

We now know there is truth to the African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child, and it will take the collaborative efforts of all of the aforementioned people and agencies to transform K-12 education – starting with our teachers.

With that being said, we must focus on developing good teachers, not simply measuring them. If we don’t help all teachers to succeed, we will diminish their potential impact on student learning. Again, that is why the legacy of Alma Exley is so important, and continues on today with the newest Alma Exley Scholar, Margaret Seclen.

I would like to congratulate Margaret on rising to the tremendous challenge of preparing students for careers and college in the 21st century, and inspiring all students to learn more, do more and become more. We welcome you to the distinguished network, and more importantly, the family of Alma Exley.




“In Their Own Words” – Violet Jiménez Sims

 Violet Jiménez Sims, recipient from 2008, writes about her experience at New Britain High School, where she teaches Spanish. Ms. Jimenez Sims earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Connecticut and is a graduate of Connecticut’s Alternate Route to Certification. Posted January 20, 2012.

As I walk down the hall of an urban high school, I hear the N-word being thrown around more frequently than “please,” “thank you,” or even “hello.” Somehow I don’t cease to be amazed when even a white kid walks down the hall, passes one of the “cool” kids, and immediately tries to connect by exclaiming, “What up, my nigga!” I cringe at the sound of this foolishness. The African American students are not offended by this; after all, they are the first ones to run around using it as a show of affection.

This mental slavery that so many of our young people subject themselves to is an absolute disgrace to all the civil rights leaders who fought to eliminate injustice and the open degradation of people of color. The shackles are not physical, but yet their subliminal control is more powerful than a wrought iron ball and chain.

Supposedly, the N-word has changed in meaning. Many claim it is still used with both negative and so-called “positive” intention. The spelling change that is often claimed as significant is simply an ignorant cop-out. Have you even been in an urban environment? Urban vernacular commonly drops “er” endings without words losing their meaning: “motha” “fatha” “sista” “brotha.”

The word “nigger” was used by the “massa” to label slaves with an artificial ignorance that would justify why they traded them like cattle, and physically abused them in a way that would have PETA in an uproar if the same were done to a dog. It defines a lazy person with no self respect, no regard for family, ignorant, stupid, slow moving, who does not speak proper English. Even after so-called “freedom” and emancipation, the KKK used the term to identify those who would be hanged, castrated, or even burned alive.

Sadly, while most Americans can trace their lineage back for centuries and to their countries of origin, it is difficult for many African Americans to trace their lineage past a few generations. Family histories were lost due to the slave trade’s purposeful separation of parents from their children and siblings from each other. As a result, African Americans developed a more inclusive term, one that connects those who shared an unimaginable struggle, and was often heard in the uplifting discourse of civil rights leaders, “brother.”

So, why use what the oppressor developed rather than that of the people who sacrificed in unthinkable ways allowing us to have the opportunities and enjoy the freedoms we have today?

And if you think that history doesn’t apply to you because you’re Puerto Rican or Dominican, you are mistaken. Learn your history, because the slave trade on our precious islands began even before it did on the U.S. mainland, and its effects are still apparent today.

The change would be small, but its effects on camaraderie would be immense. Conveniently, brother and sister also happen to end in an “er” that is often replaced by an “a” in urban vernacular. So, all your favorite raps would still rhyme while you boost your morale by referring to each other with words that foster unity rather than ignorance. The invisible shackles must be broken and replaced by visible embraces. Instead of tripping each other we could actually hold each other up.

The N-word alone is not the problem. Inflated poverty rates, disproportionally low graduation rates, and unemployment rates are bigger problems.

But the frequent use and acceptance of the N-word by our own people is a daily reminder that, although we have overcome many things, many of us have lost sight of how far we have to go.

Saying this word and allowing others to say it is a sign that we have given up, or mistakenly believe the fight for equality is over.

“In Their Own Words” – Sacha Kelly

Sacha Kelly shares her thoughts on the need for greater diversity in the teaching profession. Ms. Kelly, honored at a reception on May 20, 2009, has a bachelor’s degree from Trinity College and a master’s degree from the University of Saint Joseph. She began her career as a mathematics teacher at Big Picture High School, Bloomfield, Conn. Posted June 25, 2009.

In order for the Connecticut public schools to be truly successful, it is critical that there are more talented teachers and school leaders of color, reflecting the diversity of the student population. Alma Exley’s scholarship program is helping to meet that essential need.

Would you believe that in my 28 years of education, attending public schools in New York City and private colleges in Connecticut, I have never been in a math or science class taught by a woman of color?!

When I work in schools today, I usually ask the students whether they have had women of color as math or science teachers. Sadly, most respond they have not. This unfortunate and commonplace absence of female teachers of color in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects fails to reflect the diversity of public-school students, and does a disservice to students of all backgrounds.

Happily, I know the presence of a mentor teacher can have a lasting impact. In high school, an African-American female teacher became my mentor. Although I never took a class with her, she showed me new possibilities for my future that I had not previously considered. I wish to thank her and the other extraordinary teachers who have had a positive impact in my life. As a result of being reached through their dedication to educate, I decided to teach to ‘pay it forward’ and inspire my students.

As an African-American woman with secondary licensure to teach high school mathematics, I am motivated to show diverse students a new image for math teachers and to encourage them to excel in STEM subjects and careers.

This spring I had the opportunity to teach geometry and algebra II as a student-teacher at Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford. Then I was also privileged to be a part of the GO-GIRL program at Saint Joseph College, a STEM enrichment program for 7th grade girls. I’m sure the students I reached in these experiences didn’t need a woman of color to learn, but I think my teaching presence left a positive impression that they could be successful scholars. The successes from these two recent teaching experiences have further reinforced my passion to teach and my commitment to inspire students, especially those of diverse backgrounds.