Founder’s Blog

Woody Exley’s updates on the Alma Exley Scholars

Educators Reunite at Latino Benefit Gala

Orlando Valentin Jr. with Dr. Violet Jiménez Sims

Violet Jiménez Sims and Orlando Valentin Jr. took different career paths after being honored by the Alma Exley Scholarship Program in 2008 and 2016, respectively.

Their divergent paths crossed recently at the annual gala of the Connecticut Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (CALAS) in Southington, Connecticut. The organization awarded five scholarships and honored seven educational leaders.

Dr. Sims began her career as a high school teacher and administrator before earning her doctorate and joining the faculty of the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut. Now she is Managing Director of Academic Programs for the Connecticut Teacher Residency Program, one of the state’s initiatives to promote educator diversity. 

Mr. Valentin began as a fourth-grade teacher before moving into leadership as Assistant Principal at Hanover Elementary School in Meriden. He is also an equity leader for schools in the Meriden region, and he champions efforts to recruit and retain educators of color in the Meriden schools.

“It was a pleasure to celebrate with Orlando,” said Dr. Sims, “and it’s gratifying to be part of an organization that supports and encourages promising Latino students and recognizes the accomplishments of Latino educational leaders across the state.”

Said Mr. Valentin, “I was delighted to catch up with Violet and learn about her work in promoting educator diversity through the Teacher Residency Program. And I was pleased to support the great work that CALAS is doing to recognize excellence among Latino students and professionals.”

Mr. Valentin and Dr. Sims are both married to educators. Tatiana Valentin is a third-grade bilingual teacher in Meriden. D’Andre Sims is a recruitment specialist with the New Britain Schools. Together, Violet and D’Andre own Sims Squared LLC, an educational consulting enterprise.

Scholarships and Awards

CALAS honored the following with scholarships:

  • Nicole Montalvo, a student at Waterbury Arts Magnet High School.
  • Ivanny Penn Mateo, a student at Platt High School in Meriden.
  • Lavinnia Nazareth a student at Central Connecticut State University.
  • Adalbyse Gonzalez a student at University of Saint Joseph.
  • Rocio Tinoco, a bilingual educator at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School in New London, who is pursuing a degree in educational leadership at UConn.

Seven awards were presented for professional excellence.

  • Exceptional Teacher Award: Carmen Pagán, a bilingual teacher at Moriarty Elementary School in Norwich.
  • Policy Advocate Award: Fran Rabinowitz, executive director, Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPSS).
  • Outstanding Educational Leader Award: Sandra Cruz-Serrano, Deputy Executive Director of Capital Region Education Center (CREC).
  • Community Advocate Award: Maritza Acosta, Office Director of the Meriden office of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families.
  • Equity Champion Award: Dr. Jason Irizarry, dean, Neag School of Education, UConn.
  • Exceptional Principal Award: Esmeralda Figueroa, principal, Parkville Elementary School, Hartford.
  • Outstanding Parent Advocate Award: Marlene Ho-Yen, manager of the extended learning program, Danbury Public Schools.

Latino Superintendents

Four Latino superintendents attended: Dr. Leslie Torres-Rodriguez, Hartford Public Schools; Dr. Alberto Vázquez-Matos, Middletown Public Schools; Dr. Madeline Negrón, New Haven Public Schools; and Andrew Gonzalez, Lebanon Public Schools

Two African-American superintendents attended: Dr. Verna Ruffin, Waterbury Public Schools, and Iris White, Acting Superintendent of Bristol Public Schools.  

A Dynamic, Growing Organization

Fifteen Latino educators in New Haven launched CALAS in 2015 to advance and support Latino educators and students. CALAS soon became one of 17 state affiliates of a national organization, the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS).

CALAS now has more than 200 members across 38 districts, regional education service centers (RESCS), and institutions of higher education. The organization now includes superintendents, district and school administrators, teachers, aspiring teachers, retired educators, and higher education personnel.

CALAS’s mission is to foster quality and equitable public education for Latino students in Connecticut while inspiring, cultivating, developing, and supporting Latino educational leaders and talent. The organization is committed to expanding the Latino educator pipeline to Connecticut’s schools. To date, 20 high school and college students have received scholarships, resulting in graduates of bilingual education, world language-Spanish, and school social work.

Shining a Spotlight on Bilingual Education

Alma Exley Scholars honored in 1998 and 2017 recently connected at an educational conference in Providence, Rhode Island, and learned they had a lot in common.

Por favor desplácese hasta el final de la historia para leerlo en Español. 

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona was the keynote speaker at the Northeast Regional Conference of the Multistate Association for Bilingual Education (MABE). Chastity Berrios Hernández was attending as a bilingual teacher at Clinton Elementary School in New Haven.

Dr. Miguel Cardona with Chastity Berrios Hernández, left, and Marnelia Martïnez, also a bilingual teacher at Clinton School in New Haven.

Speaking Up at a Young Age

Dr. Cardona spoke about a turning point when he was a young student in Meriden, Connecticut.

“Up until middle school, they called me Michael in school,” he said. “One day in seventh grade I asked my mother what it said on my birth certificate, and she said it was Miguel.

“The next day I went to the office and respectfully got the attention of the secretary. I asked her to make sure that all the school records listed my name as Miguel. From that day forward, I was Miguel in school.

“For me, that name became such a central part of me,” he said. “My parents had taught me to be unapologetically me, to embrace my identity, my culture, and my home language as the superpowers that they are.

“As my career has progressed, I’ve become more vocal about it,” the Secretary said. “When the President introduced me as Secretary of Education, I said I was as American as apple pie—and rice and beans.

A Culture of Low Expectations

“For far too long, our multilingual, multicultural students have internalized a culture of low expectations,” he said. “Their backgrounds have been treated as deficits to be overcome rather than assets to make their classrooms and their communities stronger.

“That’s unacceptable. That’s why I have worked so hard to raise the bar in education for our multilingual learners. That’s why I have traveled the country to speak at conferences like this to emphasize the countless academic and economic benefits of dual-language programs.”

Chastity Berrios Hernández with Marnelia Martïnez and Melanie Rodriguez, right.

Importance of Speaking Up

Ms. Berrios told me that she loved hearing that young Miguel Cardona had taken the initiative to speak up for himself. “Unfortunately,” she said, “many students don’t do so, thinking it will be considered disrespectful or out of line.

“For too long, bilingualism in the USA has mostly been viewed negatively and as a burden or deficiency,” she said. “However, identity starts with one’s name, which should be written and pronounced correctly.

“If we educators want to honor students, the first step is to write and say their names correctly. Honoring who they are and where they come from fosters culturally responsive teaching and learning.

“Like Dr. Cardona, I learned that I had to find the courage at a young age to speak up for myself unapologetically,” Ms. Berrios said. “When I entered Clinton Avenue School as a fourth grader, I had just arrived from Puerto Rico. My English was limited. I had left everything behind—friends, family, school—to dive into my new reality. I was facing a new culture, language, and traditions.

“At home, the message was that to be fully bilingual was a good thing. But my new world seemed to be presenting a different message of discomfort for those who spoke only one language.

“I have learned over the years to embrace my story,” she told me. “I wanted to become the example—as a teacher of color—that I wish I had seen when I was growing up.

“Mi identidad Boricua es todo para mi. (My Puerto Rican identify is everything for me.) Being able to speak Spanish and English has opened up deep layers of understanding for me.”

It gives me great pleasure to tell this story of Ms. Berrios and Dr. Cardona, who are among the more than 30 outstanding Alma Exley Scholars who are making a difference in the lives of countless students in many different ways at the local and national levels.

  • Woody Exley

Destacando la educación bilingüe

Los becarios Alma Exley ganado en 1998 y 2017 se conectaron recientemente en una conferencia educativa en Providence, Rhode Island, y aprendieron que tenían mucho en común.

El Secretario de Educación de los Estados Unidos, Miguel Cardona, fue el orador principal en la Conferencia Regional Noreste de la Asociación Multiestelar para la Educación Bilingüe (MABE). Chastity Berrios Hernández asistía como maestra bilingüe en la Escuela Primaria Clinton en New Haven.

Hablar a una edad temprana

El Dr. Cardona habló sobre un punto de inflexión cuando era un joven estudiante en Meriden, Connecticut.

“Hasta la secundaria, me llamaban Michael en la escuela”, dijo. “Un día en séptimo grado le pregunté a mi mamá qué decía mi acta de nacimiento y me dijo que era Miguel.

“Al día siguiente fui a la oficina y respetuosamente llamé la atención de la secretaria. Le pedí que se asegurara de que todos los registros escolares indicaran mi nombre como Miguel. A partir de ese día fui Miguel en la escuela.

“Para mí, ese nombre se convirtió en una parte central de mí”, dijo. “Mis padres me habían enseñado a ser yo sin pedir disculpas, a aceptar mi identidad, mi cultura y mi lengua materna como los superpoderes que son.

“A medida que mi carrera ha progresado, he hablado más al respecto”, dijo el secretario. “Cuando el presidente me presentó como Secretario de Educación, dije que era tan estadounidense como el pastel de manzana… y el arroz y las habichuelas (frijoles).

Una cultura de bajas expectativas

“Durante demasiado tiempo, nuestros estudiantes multilingües y multiculturales han internalizado una cultura de bajas expectativas”, dijo. “Sus antecedentes han sido tratados como déficits que deben superarse en lugar de activos para fortalecer sus aulas y sus comunidades.

“Eso es inaceptable. Por eso he trabajado tan duro para elevar el nivel de la educación para nuestros estudiantes multilingües. Es por eso que he viajado por todo el país para hablar en conferencias como ésta para enfatizar los innumerables beneficios académicos y económicos de los programas bilingües”.

Importancia de hablar

La Sra. Berríos me dijo que le encantó escuchar que el joven Miguel Cardona había tomado la iniciativa de hablar por sí mismo. “Desafortunadamente”, dijo, “muchos estudiantes no lo hacen, pensando que se considerará irrespetuoso o fuera de lugar.

“Durante demasiado tiempo, el bilingüismo en Estados Unidos ha sido visto de forma negativa y como una carga o una deficiencia”, afirmó. “Sin embargo, la identidad comienza con el nombre, que debe escribirse y pronunciarse correctamente.

“Si los educadores queremos honrar a los estudiantes, el primer paso es escribir y decir correctamente sus nombres. Honrar quiénes son y de dónde vienen fomenta la enseñanza y el aprendizaje culturalmente receptivos.

“Al igual que el Dr. Cardona, aprendí que tenía que encontrar el coraje a una edad temprana para hablar por mí misma sin pedir disculpas”, dijo la Sra. Berrios. “Cuando entré a la Escuela Clinton Avenue como estudiante de cuarto grado, acababa de llegar de Puerto Rico. Mi inglés era limitado. Había dejado todo atrás (amigos, familia, escuela) para sumergirme en mi nueva realidad. Me enfrentaba a una nueva cultura, idioma y tradiciones.

“En casa, el mensaje era que ser completamente bilingüe era algo bueno. Pero mi nuevo mundo parecía presentar un mensaje diferente de malestar para quienes hablaban un solo idioma.

“A lo largo de los años, he aprendido a aceptar mi historia”, me dijo. “Quería convertirme en el ejemplo, como maestro de color, que desearía haber visto cuando era niño.

“Mi identidad Boricua es todo para mí. (Mi identidad puertorriqueña lo es todo para mí). Poder hablar español e inglés me ha abierto profundos niveles de comprensión y de cómo interactúo con los demás reconociendo los diferentes dialectos”

Es un gran placer para mí contar esta historia de la Sra. Berrios y el Dr. Cardona, quienes se encuentran entre los más de 30 destacados becarios Alma Exley que están marcando una diferencia en las vidas de innumerables estudiantes de muchas maneras diferentes a nivel local y nacional.

– Woody Exley

(Muchas gracias a Chastity Berrios Hernández por la traducción.)

Dr. Santosha Oliver, Assistant NY State Commissioner

Congratulations to Dr. Santosha Oliver, 2007 Alma Exley Scholar, on her appointment as assistant commissioner for standards and instructional programs for New York State Public Schools.

What a happy surprise to run into her at the annual conference of the National Association of State Boards of Education in San Diego. Dr. Oliver’s team was presenting on a years-long initiative to revise the high school graduation requirements in New York State.

Prior to moving to Albany for her new job, Dr. Oliver had been assistant superintendent for Windsor, Conn., public schools since 2016. She began her education career as a science teacher at East Hartford High School. Subsequently, she served as coordinator of assessment, evaluation, and research for the East Hartford Public Schools; assistant principal of the O’Brien STEM Academy of the East Hartford Public Schools; and the administrator in charge of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education in the Manchester, Conn., Public Schools.

A graduate of Manchester High School, she holds a B.S. degree in biology from Morgan State University and a Ph.D. in genetics and developmental biology from the University of Connecticut. She earned her Connecticut teaching certificate in the Alternate Route to Certification.

I’m so proud of Tosha and all she has accomplished in her illustrious educational career. She has had a big impact along the way, from the classroom to the office, and now she has the opportunity to make a difference on behalf of the 2.5 million public-school students across the state of New York.

I’m also grateful to the supporters of the Alma Exley Scholarship Program, who made it possible for us to recognize Tosha’s potential and give her a boost as she began her career in education.

Best wishes, Tosha, for continued success.