Founder’s Blog

Woody Exley’s updates on the Alma Exley Scholars

Cardona Urges School Renaissance

Secretary Cardona addressing NASBE conference

The Alma Exley Scholarship family has followed Miguel Cardona’s career over the years with admiration and a measure of pride.

Since we honored him in 1998 as a student at Central Connecticut State University, he has climbed to the heights of educational leadership as Connecticut Commissioner of Education and U.S. Secretary of Education.

I was delighted to connect with Dr. Cardona recently in the nation’s capital, where he addressed the National Association of State Boards of Education.

He began his remarks by acknowledging the Alma Exley Scholarship Program which, he said, gave him a scholarship at the age of 21 and boosted his confidence as he was about to begin his career. How gracious of him to highlight the impact of our scholarship with yours truly in the audience.

Everyone who supports our scholarship program can feel good about helping to launch the remarkable career of Miguel Cardona–and so many other outstanding educators.

Woody Exley with Secretary Cardona at conference

Surviving COVID Through Collaboration

Speaking to board members from 20 states and territories, Dr. Cardona reflected on how the education community survived the COVID pandemic not just because of funding, but also through collaboration among educators, health professionals, labor, and government.

“In so many ways,” he said, “state boards of education have been the ones driving this collaboration. You’ve been the ones reminding us that we need to come together for our children. You’ve been the ones driving the bold policies that can transform a broken status quo in education.

“We’ve arrived at a crossroads,” he said. “We could be at the dawn of an educational renaissance in America – or in the last year of an educational ‘flash in the pan.’”

Dr. Cardona said the Biden Administration has delivered historic investments, from the $130 billion American Rescue Plan to the $2 billion investment in the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act to build safer, healthier schools.

“And red and blue states alike have seized this funding to raise the bar for students,” he said.

Raising the Bar

“You’re raising the bar for academic excellence . . . Like in Tennessee, which is accelerating recovery with a $170 million investment in high-quality summer learning programs and math and reading tutors, because we know extended learning time works.

“You’re raising the bar for learning conditions. . . Like in Oklahoma, which is using ARP funding to hire more counselors, mental health providers, and recreational therapists across 181 school districts. 

“And you’re raising the bar for pathways to global competitiveness. . . like in Washington state, which has doubled the number of districts offering dual-language programs, giving more students the competitive advantage of multilingualism.

“You’ve raised the bar for progress in education. Now, my charge to you is: help us build the system it will take to sustain that progress, to make sure it outlasts all of us.”

Systems Superior to Superheroes

The Secretary said that, in education, we rely too much on superheroes to drive change, whether it’s a Wonder Woman principal, using a lasso to bring educators and families together, or a Spiderman superintendent untangling a web of bureaucracy to free up dollars for summer programs, or a Hulk on the state board, strong-arming business relationships to ensure students in technical schools learn in-demand skills.

“A superhero can make a big impact, but none of us will be in these jobs forever,” he said. “What happens after we’re gone? That’s why I always say, transformational change will rely on systems, not superheroes.

“We know that ARP (American Rescue Plan) funding won’t be around forever. That’s why President Biden’s new budget is about sustaining your progress for years to come

Proposing Budget Increase

“When I appear before Congress, I will be fighting for you, for a budget increase of 14 percent so that your states have the support you need to keep doing their jobs.

“The budget includes $3 billion to boldly address the educator shortage. It includes $18.2 billion for students with disabilities and another $2.2 billion for Title I schools on top of the nearly $2 billion increase we’ve already secured.

“And it includes major new commitments to finally make universal pre-K and free community college a reality in this country.

“We can’t shrink our aspirations or slow down our recovery efforts.  Because how we act now won’t just determine the appetite for education funding for years to come. It’ll determine whether the transformational change you’ve started in your states is sustainable. Whether it’s built on systems that last, instead of superheroes who won’t.

“Today, I ask you to focus on building systems and mechanisms for intentional collaboration that will outlast your time in this role.”

Stronger Together

Dr. Cardona told the story of someone who received a house plant with large leaves growing from three separate stalks. Over time, as the weight of the leaves grew, each of the stalks drooped toward the floor. They could not stand upright without being propped up.

Later, the owner of the house plant saw a plant exactly like it in a waiting room. But this one stood fully upright. No sticks, no wires, no supports.

This plant also had three stalks, but the stalks had been braided together into one stronger stalk. Each stalk alone could not stand tall. It needed to be braided with others.

“That is a metaphor for where we are in education,” he said. “What got us through COVID was not just the funding, but also what we did with it by braiding our strengths together.

“It’s time to ask yourselves: Are the seeds of progress you’ve planted going to grow into stems that bend and break? Will division and partisanship separate our plant stalks?

“Or will those plant stalks flourish because they’re braided together, in partnership with colleges and universities, labor and workforce partners, community organizations, and health care?

Collaboration on Behalf of Students

“Now is the time to braid our efforts with health providers to build Tier 1 mental health supports for students.

“Now is the time to braid our efforts with labor to reimagine professional development and leadership opportunities that retain great educators… And bring pre-service teachers into the classroom with better pay.

“Now is the time to braid our efforts with colleges and workforce partners to create a sense of mutual accountability on dual enrollment and career pathways… Because there’s a tsunami of great, well-paying jobs coming–and we have to be ready.

“Now is the time to braid our efforts with the science on early childhood education and effective bilingual education and push harder than ever to strengthen systems and increase oportunidades.

“Ya es tiempo de aprender otro idioma!

Controlling the Narrative

“And now is the time to braid our voices in support of each other, so we can stand taller, speak louder, and unapologetically control the narrative on public education, and the cost of continued disinvestment.

“We are in this together! Whatever the mechanism, I hope you get creative about setting up something that can outlast you, and benefit students for years to come.

“We’re gathered here at a critical time… What we do together could mean the difference between renaissance and restoration – between transforming our education system for good or going back to a broken status quo that failed our students, and our nation.

“Our country’s success is dependent on our collective will to resist complacency and embrace bold action.

“This is not an easy task, and some of us may even put our roles on the board of education in peril, but I’m challenging you act on your love of students and educators and lead like you have never led before.

“As the late great Congressman John Lewis said in his passion to create good trouble, ‘If not us, who? If not now, when?’

Delivering for Students

“We are the ones who have to deliver for our students. We are the ones who have to raise the bar. And we are the ones who have to braid our strengths together.

“Let’s not just prop up a wilting plant and call it a day. Let’s reimagine our education system as that braided plant: able to stand stronger for longer, with every stalk woven together as one. Seeing our state boards of education come together like this today, I’ve never been more confident that we can pull it off. So let’s get to work.”

  • Woody Exley

Creating a Peaceful, Welcoming Bilingual Classroom

Chastity Berrios Hernández strives every day to make her bilingual classroom peaceful and welcoming for her students, many of whom come from single-parent, low-income households. She also promotes social and emotional learning while teaching the three R’s to her students who face personal and academic challenges.

We honored Ms. Berrios as an Alma Exley Scholar in 2017 when she was a student at Fairfield University. Since then, she has been teaching in bilingual, Spanish/English classrooms at Clinton Avenue School in New Haven.

Chastity Berrios Hernández in her bilingual classroom

Wish List on Amazon

Looking ahead to the new school year, she has established a wish list on Amazon to collect books and materials to help create a positive learning environment in her fourth-grade classroom. Click here to view the wish list.

“These books and materials will have a direct impact on my students in meaningful ways,” she said. “They will help to make the classroom feel welcoming–like a second home to them.

These resources are intended to help the students with social and emotional learning. Click here to read an article about social and emotional learning.

Life-Long Coping Skills

The materials are intended to help students to develop life-long coping skills and learn how to resolve conflict peacefully. They also will help them to overcome the barriers they face in learning a second language. Some of the items are for small-group instruction for both English and Spanish.

“The books listed are to add to our growing bilingual library,” Ms. Berrios said. “I am creating a book corner, a calming corner to enhance those times when we all need a small break.

“My practice in the classroom is always to get the students engaged in a hands-on manner. They are starting to see where they could be change-makers in all aspects of their lives. This past school year we talked a lot about the environment, animals, and the economy using the program called Panorama. This encouraged the students to start an initiative to pick up all the trash around the school twice a week.

“I often talk to my students about my personal life story and how I decided to become a teacher,” Ms. Berrios said. “I had only one teacher of color in my public-school career. She made such a difference in my life, and that’s when I realized that students need a teacher like me.

“I’m sending heartfelt thanks to all who consider getting involved to make a difference for our students,” she said. “No amount is too small, and all will be appreciated.”

  • Woody Exley

Two Alma Exley Scholars Are On Their Way To Harvard

Hearty congratulations to Vernon-James Riley and Justis López. These Alma Exley Scholars have been admitted into the Doctor of Education Leadership program at Harvard University.

Justis López, left, and Vernon-James Riley meet up at orientation at Harvard.

We honored Mr. Riley in 2008 when he was an undergraduate at Yale. Mr. López was our honoree in 2015, when he was a student in the five-year Bachelor’s/Master’s Program at the University of Connecticut.

“I am extremely excited to pursue this long-time goal of mine,” Mr. Riley told me. “As a system-level leader in education, I commit to grounding myself in my values, honoring the uniqueness of each school community’s needs and its leader’s vision, and leveraging system-wide the tried-and-true principles of data-informed instruction, all in service of student wellness and achievement.

“I believe that the Ed.L.D. program of study will further develop my values, knowledge, and skills, empowering me to effectively lead and transform for the large-scale impact I know is possible.”

Vernon-James Riley leading session at educational conference.

Born and raised in Harlem, New York City, Mr. Riley resides in the Washington, D.C., area where he serves as the Vice Provost of National School Leader Programs at the Relay Graduate School of Education. Previously, he served as Principal at North Star Academy Charter School in Newark, New Jersey, a National Blue Ribbon School and part of the Uncommon Schools network.

He received a B.A. in American Studies from Yale University, an M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction from the College of Education at Michigan State University, an Ed.M. in Organizational Leadership from Teachers College, Columbia University, and an Ed.M. from Relay Graduate School of Education. 

Creating Radical Spaces of Joy

“I cried when I got the acceptance call from our professor,” Mr. López said. “It still feels like a dream or movie. I am incredibly excited to join this community.

“My goal in this program is to create radical spaces of joy, love, healing, peace, and possibility for people to reach the best version of themselves so that they may flourish and thrive, especially for the communities that the Alma Exley scholarship program supports.”

Justis López at Harvard

Justis López (also known as DJ Faro) is the founder and chief enthusiasm officer (CEO) of Just Experience LLC, a startup company that strives to educate, entertain, and empower communities across the world. As a community organizer, he focuses on ways to create spaces of radical joy, justice, healing through Hip-Hop and the arts.

He is pursuing his second master’s degree, in education entrepreneurship, at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is focusing on creating Joy Labs with Project Happyvism.

Previously, he served as the Director of Alumni Affairs at the Council for Opportunity in Education in Washington D.C., assisting with fostering community for the national TRIO programs for low-income and first-generation college students. He began his career as a social studies teacher at his alma mater, Manchester High School in Connecticut and has taught high school and middle school in the Bronx, N.Y.

Transformative Leaders

The program is a cohort-based, three-year, fully funded program, which includes the opportunity to take classes across Harvard’s graduate schools in the second year,” Mr. López said. “In the third year, I will participate in a residency with an education organization aligned to my goals.”

According to Harvard, the doctoral program is designed to produce transformative leaders in preK–12 education. Students in the multidisciplinary program take courses in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the Harvard Business School, and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

What an exceptional opportunity for these young men to receive a well-rounded education giving them deep insights into the worlds of education, business, and government. I’m sure they will emerge from this experience ready to assume even greater responsibilities and have an even bigger impact at the local, state, or national level.

Harvard says that graduates of its education leadership program have become superintendents of schools, chief academic officers, and presidents of foundations and other nonprofit organizations. Graduates also have gone on to become state education commissioners or policy advisors to senior government officials as well as social entrepreneurs and innovators.

This is such an exciting opportunity for Messrs. Riley and López. They already have had a significant impact in the field of education, and I expect them to reach even greater heights in their remarkable careers in the future.

  • Woody Exley