Author Archives: Woody

Education Commissioner Welcomes Alma Exley Scholar

Commissioner Cardona and Marquis Harris

Marquis Harris of Waterbury, a junior at the University of Saint Joseph, has been welcomed into the Alma Exley scholarship family by Dr. Miguel Cardona, the Connecticut state commissioner of education.

This meeting was especially fortuitous since Dr. Cardona was one of the first Alma Exley Scholars, in 1998.

Mr. Harris, a secondary education major with a concentration in English literature, was chosen as our 31st Alma Exley Scholar by a diverse selection committee of respected educators. We will honor him at a reception in the spring.

He is a graduate of Wilby High School in Waterbury and Naugatuck Community College. He plans to return to teach at one of the high schools in his hometown after receiving his degree from USJ in 2121.

Setting an Example

“I’ve never had a black, male teacher,” he told Dr. Cardona in a meeting in the commissioner’s office in Hartford. “I want to be the kind of role model that I’ve never had. It’s been said that ‘you cannot be what you cannot see,’ and I want to set the kind of example that students can look up to and emulate.”

Dr. Cardona recalled being honored with the scholarship in 1998 when he was an undergraduate at Central Connecticut State University. He said that the award gave him confidence as he was looking ahead to beginning his teaching career. He went on to earn a master’s degree and a doctorate from UConn.

While at the State Department of Education, Mr. Harris also had the opportunity to meet Desi Nesmith, whom we honored with an Alma Exley memorial scholarship in 2000, and who recently had been appointed deputy commissioner.

A group of people posing for the camera

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Desi Nesmith with Marquis Harris

An Inspiring Experience

Mr. Harris said it was inspiring to meet two Alma Exley Scholars who had risen to important leadership positions. He loves poetry, especially the writing of Emily Dickinson, and he hopes to pass along his appreciation for literature to his students in the future.

Dr. Cardona began his career as an elementary teacher in his hometown of Meriden, and soon became the state’s youngest school principal. He was honored at the White House as a National Distinguished Principal. He served as assistant superintendent in Meriden before being appointed state education commissioner in 2019.

Mr. Nesmith began his career as a teacher at East Hartford’s Mayberry Elementary School, where he was named Teacher of the Year. He served as an elementary principal in Hartford, being named the state’s outstanding first-year principal. He was a principal in his hometown of Bloomfield before joining the State Department of Education, where he served as chief school turnaround officer and interim commissioner until being appointed deputy commissioner late in 2019.

Congratulations to Marquis Harris on this honor, as well as to Dr. Miguel Cardona and Desi Nesmith on their recent appointments to leadership positions at the highest level of public education in the State of Connecticut.

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America’s Schools Are More Diverse Than Ever, But the Teachers are Still Mostly White

Editor’s Note: The Washington Post has published an excellent story about how students of color benefit from having teachers of color. The story features individual students and the teachers who have made a difference in their lives. It also highlights research into the impact of teachers of color.

For example, researchers have found significant positive results when black and Latino students have teachers who match their race or ethnicity: Better attendance, fewer suspensions, more positive attitudes, and higher test scores, graduation rates and college attendance. Teachers of color also have higher expectations for students of color, which may fuel the other gains. 

Studies have concluded that having a same-race teacher makes black and Latino students more likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college. Excerpts from the story follow.

By Laura Meckler and Kate Rabinowitz, Washington Post, Dec 27, 2019

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Ricardo Alcalá’s parents, born in Mexico, carried less than a second-grade education when they came to California to work the fields. His older siblings dropped out of high school. One was sentenced to prison for life and killed behind bars. Ricardo was 13 then, living in poverty. 

But when he was 14, something changed. A Latina teacher told him he was too smart for pre-algebra and should move up. 

“For some reason, that simple act and belief changed my entire perception of schooling, and life really,” he said. “She was the first person who saw something good in me.” 

Now, Alcalá is a high school Spanish teacher, looking for the good in his students, most from Latino and poor families like his. He nudges boys drawn to gangs toward the wrestling team instead, and serves Mexican hot chocolate on a Monday afternoon, hoping that small treat will dissuade students from skipping class. 

Just Two Latino Teachers

Not many teachers at Elsie Allen High School can connect with students in the same way. While 80 percent of students are Latino, just two of 56 teachers are — 3.5 percent. 

Nationally, a Washington Post analysis of school district data from 46 states and the District of Columbia finds that only one-tenth of 1 percent of Latino students attend a school system where the portion of Latino teachers equals or exceeds the percentage of Latino students. 

It’s only marginally better for black students: 7 percent were enrolled in a district where the share of black teachers matches or exceeds that for students. Among Asian students, it was 4.5 percent. 

Over time, the ranks of teachers of color have grown. In 1988, 87 percent of public school teachers were white. By 2016, 80 percent were, according to federal data. 

Racial Gap Between Students And Teachers Has Grown

Nonetheless, the racial gap between teachers and students has widened as more young people of color have enrolled each year. In 1994, two-thirds of public school students were white; by 2016, fewer than half were. 

Researchers have found significant positive results when black and Hispanic students have teachers who match their race or ethnicity: better attendance, fewer suspensions, more positive attitudes, and higher test scores, graduation rates and college attendance. Teachers of color also have higher expectations for students of color, which may fuel the other gains. 

“Representation absolutely matters and it matters for … almost every educational outcome you can think of,” said Seth Gershenson, a public policy professor at American University. 

Lack of Cultural Connection

Celio Batres, 17, a senior here in Santa Rosa, whose family emigrated from El Salvador, recalled an assignment to explore different cultures and feeling like he couldn’t connect with his white teacher. “She grew up in a middle-class family, basically living the American Dream, and that’s completely different from my family and the way we were brought up,” he said. 

He said it was different with the one Latino teacher he had. Tomas Salinas talked about his own home growing up, the aroma of food wafting from the kitchen where his mom was cooking. “My house, it’s the same way,” Batres said. 

Father Figure

Salinas, whose parents are Mexican, remembers being on the other side. A Latina teacher hung Mexican and American flags in his fourth-grade classroom, not far from where he teaches today. “That just spoke to me as a kid,” he said. Now, as an English teacher, he incorporates Latino authors into his course. 

Motivating Students

At Elsie Allen High, Alcalá teaches Spanish, coaches the wrestling team and, when he thinks it might motivate a student, tells the story of his brother’s death, and how it motivated him to get serious about school. He tells them poverty is no excuse for failure. He tells them selling drugs is what landed his brother in prison. He’ll sometimes visit his students’ parents at home. 

“I have no fear to go to someone’s house and talk to them in their native language,” he said. 

Higher Graduation Rates

Studies find that having a same-race teacher makes black and Hispanic students more likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college and can even affect a choice of major. One study looked at black students who had at least one black and one white teacher in high school and found the black teachers more likely to expect black students would finish college. Another found that black students were more likely to be referred to gifted and talented programs when they had black teachers. 

“I’m doing student teaching two blocks away from my home,” said Kimberly Leal-Juarez, 28, who is working toward her teaching certification at the Los Angeles university. 

She said she never had a Latino teacher until high school and rarely felt supported. She recalls one of her teachers calling her college application essay “melodramatic,” a shot that stung her enough to abandon the idea of applying to college for several years. She said she had written about domestic violence in her home. “I didn’t know how to fix my personal statement. It was real for me.” 

Relatable Teacher

Talking with students at San Gabriel High School in the Alhambra district, one name kept popping up: English teacher Virginia Parra. Asked if there was a teacher they could relate to, one Latino student after another mentioned her. 

Growing up, Parra said, her father was always working and rarely set foot in school. Her mom was embarrassed that her English wasn’t good enough and shied away from teachers. Parra says she got lucky that a teacher noticed her and pushed her toward advanced classes and college. Now, she is doing the same, moving Latino kids into and through her AP English Language course. 

“Some of the students are struggling, or they never saw themselves capable of being in an AP class. And in the beginning we talk about why they’re here and their purpose and telling them that they’re all valued and they should be here,” she said. 

She seems a little embarrassed talking about her impact. But her wall is full of notes from students, and another mound of cards is put away, along with a stack of yearbooks whose pages are filled with student messages. 

Helped By Getting a Push

Ashley Macias, 15, who came to California from Mexico when she was 3, was already feeling insecure when she learned the cross-country team was dominated by Asian students. She wanted to be part of it, but feared she didn’t fit in. Macias talked to Parra, and learned she had run cross-country in high school. “And that kind of pushed me to want to go back because I felt if she did it, you know, it’s okay if I go, too.” 

Parra also encouraged her to compete in a poetry competition. She performed her poem called “Assumptions,” eviscerating those who assume she’s a criminal, a “ghetto girl” or stupid in school. “I have never worked on a field,” her poem says. “But even if I had to why would that be so bad.” 

“I find myself not being scared to do much anymore,” Macias said. “And I think that’s because of her.” 

Our Program Cited Among Top 5 in Connecticut

College Consensus, a unique new college review aggregator, has recognized the Alma Exley Scholarship Program as one of the Top 5 Scholarships in Connecticut.

View the announcement and rankings here.

As an official of College Consensus said, “With prospective students facing the increasing costs of higher education, organizations such as yours are an important contributor to making college more affordable.”

Thanks to everyone who has supported and participated in our program, including our generous donors, our selection committee, the colleges and universities who send us such outstanding applicants, the Community Foundation of Greater New Britain, and our wonderful recipients who make us so proud.

College Consensus is an online resource for students looking for information on scholarships as well as on colleges and the programs they offer. College Consensus ranks scholarships in various categories and regions, and ranks colleges in many categories such as small colleges, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, public universities, business schools, etc.