Author Archives: Woody

Cardona Shares Honor with Family, Community

U.S Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona was inducted into the Meriden Hall of Fame on Sunday. His acceptance speech was a love letter to his family and the city of Meriden.

Secretary Cardona with Marissa, Miguel Jr., and Celine

Prior to joining President Biden’s cabinet last year, Dr. Cardona served as a teacher, principal, and district leader in Meriden and as state commissioner of education for Connecticut.

U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, congratulating Dr. Cardona at the ceremony, said, “There is nobody in the president’s cabinet right now who is doing more to advance the agenda of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we have today to rebuild America.”

Secretary Cardona began his eloquent, emotional, and passionate speech by recalling the fear and trepidation he experienced on his first day of kindergarten.

A Daunting Start to His Educational Career

“My first day of school is memorable,” he said. “I wore a cocoa brown, three-piece suit to school. I remember that day as one of my first life memories. I remember seeing all those big kids, and an overwhelming fear came over me. I thought to myself, ‘I cannot do this.’

“I remember crying so much on my first day that the nurse had to call my mom to come and pick me up. As I sat in the nurse’s office, I was nauseous. My stomach was in knots. I was dejected and confused. I submitted to the fact that I wasn’t cut out for this school thing. At that moment, I made the decision that I was never going back. As I went home with my mami, I was thankful for two things: one that I had a cocoa brown suit on and two, that my mom quickly gave me a bath. You do the math. Put a pin in this story; I’ll come back to it later.”

He thanked the Meriden Historical Society and the Meriden Hall of Fame and said he was honored to share the recognition with the other honorees, Bruce Burchsted, Rose Cignatta, Larry Pelletier, and the late Philip Handel.

Sharing the Honor with Family

“This award is special,” he said, “because it acknowledges my lived experiences. It’s a culmination of who I am, and I cannot accept this without sharing it with the people who shaped those experiences.”

Of his wife, Marissa, and children, Miguel Jr. and Celine, he said, “You give me purpose. Just thinking of the three of you pushes me to do my best.” He went on to thank his extended family and friends, saying, “You shaped my life so significantly that without you I wouldn’t be here.”

Following are excerpts from the rest of the speech:

“Sarah and Hector (Miguel’s mother and father), you taught me to treat everyone with the same level of dignity and respect, regardless of whether it’s the person cleaning my office or the president of the United States. Mami, since day one, you taught me service, humility, and sacrifice. You never complained. You persevered. Papi, I have the honor of being the second most well-known Cardona in Meriden. One of my greatest titles to this day is to be referred to as Hector’s kid. To my family, this honor is as much yours as it is mine.

Community: A Profound Influence

“When thinking about who I should thank, I couldn’t help but go back to a person who has been with me since day one. Someone who has had my back when I did well, but who was also there for me when I failed. This is someone who I relied on and always felt comfortable around no matter what I was experiencing. This person accepted me for me and made me feel like I was not less than anyone else.

“The only issue here is that this person isn’t actually a person. It’s a place. It’s Meriden. In preparing my remarks, I felt that I had to personify the city because of its impact on me. Like the influence of my family, my entrance into the Hall of Fame is because I learned life lessons from Meriden. In fact, I embody qualities as a person that Meriden has as a city. The city of Meriden and what it represents permeated into my DNA and shaped me to be the person who is being honored.

“You see, from Meriden I learned grittiness. I learned you can go from Washington Middle School to Washington, D.C. You can translate your passion for equity by celebrating Puerto Rican festivals with Papi or talking safe school reopening with POTUS. It’s the same grittiness and the same passion that I got from these streets here in Meriden. And from Meriden I got resilience and never giving up. I wouldn’t trade this blue-collar community for any other life.

Never Give Up

“I would say I was born rich. No silver spoon growing up, but I lacked nothing. Meriden taught me that when things get tough you get tougher. And you never give up. We don’t give up on ourselves. We don’t give up on our families. And we don’t give up on our community.

“From Meriden I learned to lead with a chip on my shoulder. To be fueled by the doubters and those who have lowered their expectations for me. Meriden taught me that. Throughout my life, like Meriden, when surrounded by others that may have a sense of superiority or question my potential, I rise and I exceed expectations, like Meriden.

“Part of the reason why I have a remote office here. . . is to make sure that when I’m having bi-lateral conversations with people in other countries or forgiving billions of dollars in student loans or standing up for transgender students, I’m doing it from downtown Meriden and nowhere else.

‘I’m Nothing Without Community’

“Don’t bet against me, and don’t bet against Meriden. From Meriden I learned to lead with a greater purpose. My experience as a teacher, a principal, assistant superintendent, and life-long resident taught me that I’m nothing without community. That this community has given me more than I have ever given it. That its people who are different colors, come from different backgrounds, and have different abilities and beliefs make up this beautiful tapestry that allowed me to expand my understanding.

“You see, whether I’m talking to a parent or someone who wants to share a story with me at the farmers’ market, or discussing diplomacy with the King of Spain, Meriden taught me to see the person and not the title. That’s why I say I’m the same from the barrio to the briefing room. Meriden taught me that.

“I accept this honor on behalf of all of us who recognize how important this community is. Meriden, you’re as much a part of my success as my family and my education. You are a piece of me, and I am a piece of you. Your virtues became my virtues. Your attribute of grittiness, that chip on your shoulder, that resilience — they became my attributes because of Meriden.

A Journey Propelled by Grit

“And that is why that scared five-year-old kid who didn’t make it through his first day of school got back up and went back. He went back to school on day two. And then he went back on day three. And then he kept going. Then he went to Washington Middle School. He went to Wilcox Tech. And because of that grittiness, that resilience, that chip on his shoulder, he wanted to go to college, get his master’s, get his doctorate, be a teacher, a principal, a district leader, lead the state. And like Meriden, people questioned and wondered if he would make it, but he just kept going. And because of Meriden, that scared five-year-old is now humbled to serve as the top educator in the best country in the world.

“There’s nothing special about me, and there’s nothing special about my story. I’m just a goofy little kid born at Yale Acres, lived on Lewis Ave, Newton Street, came from a great family and a wonderful community. So when my picture hangs in the hallway of our City Hall or you see me on a plaque or you see me on TV, think of Meriden and how there are thousands of quiet and maybe even scared little kids like I was who are being shaped by our beautiful city and remember in those kids there lies potential to change the world.”

Dr. Violet Jiménez Sims Sets Sights on City Council

As a former teacher at New Britain High School and a current member of the local board of Eduction, Dr. Violet Jiménez Sims is well aware of the needs and priorities of the New Britain Public Schools. She hopes to take her knowledge to the city council, where she will gain more power to make a difference for the schools.

Dr. Sims prevailed in a primary election on September 14, winning the nomination to run for an at-large seat on the city council in the general election on November 2. She has received endorsements from the Democratic Town Committee and the Working Families Party. She is one of five endorsed candidates who will run in the general election.

“One of the challenges of being on the board of education is that you only have the power to spend the budget approved by the City Council and the mayor,” Dr. Sims says. “Year after year, the current administration has provided a very small increase or no increase at all to the budget for the city schools.”

Alma Exley Scholar

The Alma Exley Scholarship Program honored Dr. Sims in 2008. She has remained involved in the program since then and has given back by serving on the selection committee for the past several years.

“New Britain remains at the bottom of 169 towns in per-pupil spending,” she said, “and the results of under-funding a high-needs district are predictable. We need a commitment to meeting the needs of all our students, which begins with equitable funding. I hope to work with other members of the council to find ways to support our school district better, both financially and through forming a more collaborative relationship with the superintendent and board of education.”

Dr. Sims came to the United States from the Dominican Republic at the age of six with her mother and brother. She graduated from E.C. Goodwin Technical High School in New Britain, which enabled her to become a licensed hairdresser/cosmetologist. Although there is a perception that most students at technical high schools are not college bound, she enrolled at UConn, where she earned bachelor’s, master’s, and six-year degrees. Then she earned a doctorate from the University of Bridgeport. She is also certified to teach hairdressing at a technical high school.

Spanish Teacher at NBHS

Dr. Sims taught Spanish as well as English for speakers of other languages at New Britain High School from 2007 to 2014. While at NBHS, she recognized the need for more teachers of color. Consequently, she served as the first teacher in the Teacher Cadet program, which encouraged students to pursue careers in education. Since then, the program evolved into Educators Rising, which this fall will be inspiring future teachers in 15 Connecticut school districts.

“One of my proudest moments in teaching the Teacher Cadet course occurred when I had two students who were new arrivals from Puerto Rico,” she recalled. “I was able to support those students in the class, allowing them to do all the honors-level coursework in Spanish. They were brilliant. That experience is one of the reasons I advocate for access to high-quality coursework for all students, because language proficiency is not correlated with intellect.”

UConn Professor

After earning her doctorate, she joined the Neag School of Education at UConn, where her teaching focuses on multiculturalism. She also works closely with 13 public-school districts in her role as associate director of teacher education for school-university partnerships.

A member of the board of education since 2017, Dr. Sims has chaired the curriculum committee, which has overseen an overhaul of the curriculum at all grade levels. “I have worked to ensure that the new curriculum is written through an equity and inclusion lens,” she said. “I have also advocated for school policies that are inclusive of English-language learners, LGBTQ students, and students of color as well as their families.”

Public Resources Should Benefit All

Obviously, education is her passion, but she also hopes to find ways for all city residents to benefit from public resources while lowering the tax burden on city residents. She hopes to accomplish this through the reallocation and prioritizing of resources as well as applying for state and federal grants that benefit the entire community.

The endorsed slate of five council candidates has identified several priorities:

  • Fund our schools and invest in youth activities and services.
  • Lower car taxes because all taxpayers — not just homeowners and landlords — need more money in their pockets.
  • Advocate and work so every home and neighborhood is safe, healthy, and free from blight.
  • Build community trust and improve public safety by creating a police civilian review board.
  • Focus on transparency and accountability at every level of local government.

“The name of our slate is Advocates for All,” she said. “I think that really encompasses the theme of my candidacy. Our appointed city boards and commissions do not resemble our population. There are certainly segments of our population that are more empowered than others. We hope to empower everyone — in all neighborhoods.”

Community Leader

Dr. Sims has also been active in the community beyond education. The New Britain branch of the NAACP gave her the Community Business and Economic Development Award in 2017. This recognized a project undertaken with her husband, D’Andre Sims. They established the Diaspora Multicultural Society, Inc., a social club whose membership represents many ethnicities from many parts of the world. They have made the space available for meetings and workshops that have had an impact on the community through a variety of programs.

Dr. Sims was the founding president in 2002 of Altrusa International of Greater Hartford, a service organization empowering women and improving literacy. She serves as first vice governor of District One, which includes clubs from New England, Bermuda, and Quebec.

D’Andre Sims is a math instructional coach at Pulaski Middle School in New Britain. Earlier in his career, he taught at New Britain High School. The couple’s daughters, Andrea and Deana, attend New Britain public schools.

Get out and vote on September 14 and November 2. Meanwhile, use the following link to make a contribution to the campaign to elect Dr. Violet Jiménez Sims: https://secure.anedot.com/advocatesforall/donate

  • Woody Exley

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Orlando Valentin ‘Sent to the Office’ — In a Good Way

More than 20 years ago, Orlando Valentin Jr. entered kindergarten at Hanover Elementary School. This month, he returned to Hanover as assistant principal.

Orlando Valentin Jr. is back where it all began: Hanover Elementary School. — Meriden Record-Journal photo

“As a school leader, it’s the best feeling being able to return to these same halls where I began my educational career,” he said. “I already know many of the teachers, students, and families in the Hanover community which makes this transition that much easier.”

2016 Alma Exley Scholar

Mr. Valentin, whom we honored with a scholarship in 2016, began his career as a fourth-grade teacher at Casimir Pulaski School in his hometown of Meriden, Connecticut. He had earned his master’s degree in the five-year integrated bachelor’s/master’s degree program at the University of Connecticut. This year he completed the two-year Administrator Preparation Program at UConn.

Meriden has a large Hispanic population. Mr. Valentin is proud of his Puerto Rican roots, and he sees himself as a role model to his students. He is a first-generation college graduate who grew up like many of his students in a single-parent household.

Equity Leader

While teaching at Pulaski, he also served in a leadership role in promoting the recruitment and retention of teachers of color in Meriden. He was one of 12 equity leaders in the school system.

The Meriden schools’ leadership for years has placed a high priority on increasing the diversity of its educator workforce. This year, 35 percent of the district’s new hires are persons of color.

Mr. Valentin’s equity work also has extended beyond Meriden. He established an affinity group for educational professionals of color in Central Connecticut.

“The affinity group gives the professionals the opportunity to network with their colleagues of color who likely have shared life experiences,” he said. “The group also has had various professional development opportunities such as a book study group and training with an equity consultant.”

Active as a Community Leader

He also has been active in the community as a coach of a youth football team and as a martial-arts instructor.

Speaking for the Alma Exley scholarship family, I can say that we are delighted that Mr. Valentin has joined the leadership ranks in his hometown school system. Best wishes for success and satisfaction, Orlando, in this next leg of your educational journey.

  • Woody Exley