Founder’s Blog

Woody Exley’s updates on the Alma Exley Scholars

Belief in the individual motivates new Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona

Miguel Cardona reviews the scrapbook his parents started making for him from his first year in teaching.

Editor’s note: Hearst Newspapers columnist Jacqueline Smith wrote a beautiful profile of our new State Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona. The column, which we are reprinting here, appeared in several newspapers in Connecticut. In her column, Ms. Smith reflected on the article she wrote about him 21 years ago when he began his teaching career in a fourth-grade classroom in Meriden. That was in 1998, several months after he had been chosen as an Alma Exley Scholar. We at the Alma Exley Scholarship Program are delighted that we had the opportunity to play a small part in helping Miguel to launch his illustrious career in education. And we wish him continued success in his new challenge as the state’s premier education official. — Woody Exley

By Jacqueline Smith, Middletown Press

Miguel Cardona to this day vividly remembers the two teachers who were the most influential in his early years.

And from his first classroom as a teacher 21 years ago, he holds dear two students, in particular, who still call him their favorite teacher.

Now Cardona, the new education commissioner for Connecticut, has the opportunity to influence the hundreds of thousands of students in the state who returned to public classrooms for a new school year. He was sworn into office on Aug. 7, the first Latino to hold the top education position in the state.

He brings a student-centered sensibility to the leadership role, informed by the powerful experiences of his youth and the meaningful relationships nurtured as a teacher and then an elementary school principal.

I first met Cardona in his fourth-grade classroom at Israel Putnam Elementary School in Meriden. It was August 1998, at the start of his first year teaching. As a reporter at the Record-Journal, I wrote a news story of his excitement preparing for the 20 students with a bulletin board of a rocket ship and stars for each with the words “Let the journey begin!”

On Aug. 23 we met again, this time in his sixth-floor office of the Department of Education building where the view overlooks the flowing Connecticut River and the confluence of busy interstate highways.

I couldn’t help but think of how unlikely it would seem that a child growing up in a housing project (Yale Acres in Meriden), who started kindergarten with Spanish as his primary language — his parents came from Puerto Rico — and went to a technical high school with an auto technician specialty would become the head of education for the state of Connecticut. And at age 44.

Miguel Cardona is a living lesson on believing in the potential of every individual.

Many have written in the past month on his objectives as education commissioner, his take on education issues, and his first summit on public education with Gov. Ned Lamont, 70 stakeholders and students. So I will offer you something different — what has shaped the new commissioner’s personality and philosophies.

“I learned English in kindergarten rather quickly,” he said in his top-floor office. “I picked up a second language, but maintained the bi-cultures.

“It taught me there’s more than one way of looking at things.”

Second grade was pivotal. His art teacher at John Barry Elementary School, Gary O’Neill, talked about football or whatever would draw in a student.

“I remember looking up and thinking, ‘I want to be like him,’” Cardona recalled. “A male teacher, a black teacher, he’s cool. We connected early on.”

Mr. O’Neill, as he still calls his second-grade teacher, inspired his interest in art, which remains to this day. A more subliminal lesson, though, was that minority male teachers could, and should, be role models.

Cardona’s interest in art carried to H.C. Wilcox Technical High School in Meriden where art teacher Linda Ransom took note of his mural, “We are all one race — the human race.”

“She liked it, and said ‘would you be able to put it up in the cafeteria?’,” he recalled. “I felt so empowered.”

“The specific message was, it’s not only art, but also a way to develop as a person.”

He is a proponent of the arts as a powerful medium for students’ authentic expression and building of community.

“These two very influential teachers are bookends to my school career,” he said.

‘That really shook me’

As we spoke in the meeting room attached to his office, Cardona was carefully thumbing through a scrapbook his parents created, starting with his first year of teaching.

My story from 1998 is there along with pages and pages of photos and notes and drawings from students.

There’s a full-page sketch of the teacher, including his beard and tie, “To The Best Fourth Grade Teacher Ever!” It’s signed Karla Rodriguez, one of his first 20 students.

“He had a huge impact on my life,” Karla said in a telephone interview. “I was a very shy kid and he pushed me to be creative.” She now is 30, with two children and a job in a Meriden nursing home. “He was very firm in class, but also very funny. As a kid, you would want to listen and learn.”

Turn a page to see a youthful Cardona with 9-year-old Chris Garcia. In December of that first class year, Chris and his family left temporarily for Puerto Rico. The teacher had the class write letters to Chris so he would know he was not forgotten. When Cardona was visiting Puerto Rico with his family, teacher and student happened to reunite and the smiles say it all.

“He placed a lot of value in me as a person,” Chris said in a telephone call from Florida. “I struggled with a positive work ethic in school, and he said to me ‘why are you not doing the work? You’re better than this. Even as a young Hispanic man, you’ve got a bright future.’ ”

“That really shook me in a good way.” He taught more than English, math and science, he taught “life’s issues.” Chris, now a father of two and an administrative assistant to an itinerant minister and motivational speaker, keeps a photo of his most influential teacher in his home.

Cardona’s values also affected parents. In response to my first column on the new education commissioner, Laurie Rochlin Luedee wrote to share a touching story.

Her children attended Hanover Elementary School where Cardona would later become principal. In April 2003 her 7-year-old daughter Rachel died unexpectedly from complications of cystic fibrosis.

“One day, I received a call from Miguel telling me he would be leaving Hanover but before he left, he wanted to have a permanent memorial in place in memory of my lovely Rachel. It was important to him that she be remembered forever,” Laurie said. They settled on a memorial garden for the first grader. “We had a beautiful ceremony to celebrate Rachel’s life. I will never forget that Miguel still kept Rachel in his heart and placed a memorial as one of his priorities before he left Hanover.”

Now 500,000 students

Family and culture are important to Cardona. He, his wife and their two children love music and play with the family band at Christmastime. He plays the bangos, a percussion instrument, not the banjo as I first wrote 21 years ago.

In his professional path as teacher, principal, and assistant superintendent in Meriden, Cardona maintained a belief in encouraging the individual for the betterment of all. It will be harder these days when he’s responsible for about 500,000 students across Connecticut, and their teachers and principals and administrators, but it is an abiding philosophy.

“I believe in seeing and setting high expectations. That’s a critical belief I have,” he said. “Each child has the potential to change the world for the better.”

The commissioner’s meeting room contains, in a prime location between windows overlooking the motion of river and highways, two blue-matted notes from students.

“Most teachers don’t like me,” concluded one student in asking to be part of a safety patrol, “you are a hole different person.”

Jacqueline Smith’s column appears Fridays in Hearst Connecticut daily newspapers. She is the editorial page editor of The News-Times in Danbury and The Norwalk Hour. Email her at

Recruiting Future Teachers From The Rank and File

An old idea is taking a new form in Waterbury and other major cities in Connecticut.

The idea was to recruit future teachers from the ranks of paraprofessionals working in the schools. This was the concept behind the Teaching Opportunities for Paraprofessionals (TOP) program, which Alma managed at the State Department of Education in the early 1990s.

TOP was an initiative to bring more persons of color into the teaching profession. The program enabled  paraprofessionals to return to college and pursue bachelor’s degrees. Most paraprofessionals in our big cities were persons of color. Many had some college credits, and all were committed to careers in education.

The program succeeded in bringing greater diversity to the teaching profession in Connecticut. Unfortunately, however, the legislature terminated the program in the late 1990s because of the cost.

Therefore, I was delighted to learn the other day that the idea of grooming paraprofessionals as teachers is alive and well.

The CT Mirror reported that Jahana Hayes, 2016 National Teacher of the Year, appeared before the state board of education to endorse an initiative to increase diversity in the state’s teacher workforce.

Hayes, who works to recruit and prepare teachers for the Waterbury Public Schools, shared her experience with the Relay Graduate School of Education. The Relay teacher-preparation program has been enabling school employees from Waterbury and other major cities — primarily paraprofessionals — to earn their teaching certification.

Jahana Hayes of Waterbury Schools

Hayes is working with Relay because she believes in recruiting future teachers from among current employees of the school system. This replicates the concept behind the TOP program from over two decades ago.

Creative efforts are needed to promote greater diversity in teaching because the vast majority of students in the state’s teacher-preparation programs are white. In fact, 82 percent in the 2016-2017 school year were white, according to the State Department of Education.

Now, persons of color account for fewer than 9 percent of educators in Connecticut’s public schools. Meanwhile, over 40 percent of public school students are minorities.

Over the past three years, 14 employees of the Waterbury Public Schools have enrolled in Relay teacher-preparation programs — all persons of color. Now, 13 percent of the district’s staff are persons of color.

The state board of education approved Relay’s non-traditional teacher-preparation program in 2016 over the objections of college faculties and teachers’ unions, who objected to Relay as a “shortcut to certification.”

The Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, has endorsed Hayes in her campaign to represent Connecticut’s Fifth District in Congress. But she has parted ways with the union on this issue, maintaining that the Relay program has had a positive impact in Waterbury.

The TOP program supported paraprofessionals in traditional teacher-preparation programs in colleges and universities across Connecticut. But all these years later, with persons of color accounting for a small percentage of Connecticut public school educators, perhaps alternative approaches are justified.

  • Woody Exley

Justis Lopez Is New England’s ‘Rising Star’

Everyone who knows Justis Lopez that he is a rising star. But now he can officially claim that title. He has received the annual Rising Star Award from the New England Educational Opportunity Association.

Mr. Lopez, whom we honored in 2015, received the award at the organization’s annual conference recently in Stowe, Vermont.

NEOA is an organization of educators who work to ensure equal educational opportunities in higher education for low-income individuals, first-generation college students, and students with disabilities.

The Rising Star Award recognizes emerging professionals who are former participants in NEOA educational opportunity programs. Mr. Lopez’s involvement with NEOA began at the University of Connecticut, where he was active with the Student Support Services program.

The SSS program opened a number of opportunities for him during his undergraduate years. He won an internship in Washington, D.C., with the NEOA-affiliated Council for Opportunity in Education, which enabled him to meet President Barack Obama. He served as a peer leader to a group of SSS undergraduate students studying in London, England. And he served as a residential coordinator in the SSS Pre-Collegiate Summer Program.

Reflecting on the impact that SSS has had on his life and career, Mr. Lopez has this to say:

“Never has any program I have been a part of shifted the trajectory of my life as much as SSS has. I have met some of my best friends and learned some of my largest life lessons that the classroom never could have taught me in that program, and I am forever grateful.”

Now finishing his third year as a high-school social studies teacher, Mr. Lopez has been honored as “an emerging leader who is striving for the highest levels of personal and professional achievement,” in the words of the NEOA. Rising Star honorees are recognized for exceling in their chosen fields, devoting time and energy to their communities in a meaningful way, and serving as role models for other low-income, first-generation, college-bound students and students with disabilities.

Mr. Lopez began his teaching career at Manchester High School. Since September 2017, he has been teaching at Urban Assembly School of Applied Math and Science, a public school in The Bronx, N.Y.

Congratulations to Justis Lopez on this much-deserved recognition by an organization of educators from across New England. Our selection committee knew he was destined for greatness, and I’m delighted that he is gaining recognition in the wider education community.

— Woody Exley