Founder’s Blog

Woody Exley’s updates on the Alma Exley Scholars

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:

  • Woody Exley


An Inspiring Teacher Transforms a Life

William T. Saunders II’s life was transformed at an early age by a teacher who introduced him to the arts, specifically dance.

“I met Earl Mosley when I was in the seventh grade through his independent dance program,” he says. “He was the first Black male teacher I had. He encouraged me to follow whatever dream I had, even if it wasn’t in the performing arts. He taught me that the discipline I learned in dance class would serve me in any career.”

William T. Saunders II

Mr. Saunders, who grew up in Waterbury, has been selected as the Alma Exley Scholar for 2021. He is pursuing his master’s degree in a two-year program at Relay Graduate School of Education.

A Life-Changing Challenge

“I auditioned for the dance program in seventh grade because a friend told me I was too fat,” Mr. Saunders recalls. “She told me, ‘No one wants to see your big belly jiggling on stage.’ I still laugh about it until this day. That was the best challenge I ever got. It changed my life.”

Earl Mosley’s Diversity of Dance was a perfect fit for the young William Saunders. The program provided an environment where students from diverse ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds were encouraged to achieve excellence.

Positive Influence of a Black Male Teacher

“Mr. Mosley, my first Black male teacher, helped me come to terms with who I wanted to be,” Mr. Saunders says. “He welcomed me into a non-competitive environment. He helped me to connect with my own art and individuality in a place where I felt safe to learn and grow.

“I soon knew I wanted to be an educator. I knew I wanted to help young Black students appreciate and love every part of themselves. I wanted to be someone’s Mr. Mosley.”

After the initial summer program ended, Mr. Mosley founded an annual summer dance program, Earl Mosley’s Institute of the Arts, hosted at the Marvelwood School in Kent, Conn. “I worked with Mr. Mosley from the seventh grade through high school, college, and into my mid-twenties. These were some of the best times in my life,” Mr. Saunders says.

“I talk about Mr. Mosley being the teacher who inspired me the most because he embraced having an education. He didn’t just focus on the dance. He would always push his students to be well versed in everything. He valued conversation, order, and balance. He wanted his students to have the ability to hold their own in any situation. Additionally, he never stifled my voice. He taught me the importance of speaking up and having an opinion.”

Encouraged by his dance teacher, Mr. Saunders attended the University of the Arts in Philadelphia to pursue his interest in ballet. After earning his BFA, he performed with small dance companies in Philadelphia and New York City.

Beginning as a Paraprofessional

He returned to the classroom when Achievement First Hartford High School recruited him as a paraprofessional. When a teacher left mid-year, he was promoted to lead teacher and passed the Praxis examination which is necessary for certification.

Mr. Saunders’s great-grandmother, Rilla Moore, raised him and his two sisters in Waterbury. “She never went past fourth grade, but she instilled in us the importance of education,” he says. “She made us sit down at the kitchen table and do our homework as soon as we got home from school. And we all had to individually read three chapters of the Bible out-loud every day to work on our reading skills.”

Their great-grandmother’s emphasis on education took hold. Mr. Saunders’ sister Darry is a science teacher at Keynor Tech in Waterbury. His sister Erica is a math education major at Central Connecticut State University.

Coach Saunders, in the back row with his cheerleading squad.

A Vital Lesson From a Student

Mr. Saunders describes his introduction to teaching this way:

“When I first started teaching, I was scared. The first couple of weeks were rough. My classes were filled with disruptions, a nervous Mr. Saunders, and kids who wanted to learn but enjoyed a little fun time.”

“One day a student asked me why I wanted to teach. I gave the typical answer, ‘I love education.’ She then told me, ‘That’s why no one is listening to you.’ She explained that students don’t want someone who loves education. They want someone who is interested in them and loves to be with them.

“From that moment, I started to approach teaching from the perspective of caring for the whole person,” he says.  “It wasn’t enough to just care about teaching.

“I noticed that my class culture started to shift. I noticed that the students started to enjoy being in the room with me. Scholars started coming to office hours. Interruption stopped. The room was filled with so much joy.

“This experience has helped me understand that all children need a whole person to show up, not someone that can recall facts. Scholars were able to meet the real Mr. Saunders. This not only helped them grow academically, but it also helped them learn how to navigate relationships with adults.”

Cheerleading Coach William Saunders with his sister Erica Thomas, his assistant coach.

Coaching Competitive Cheerleading

Since he was a cheerleader at Crosby High School, he welcomed the opportunity to coach the cheerleading squad at Achievement First. He is proud of building an inclusive team that has entered competitions with other schools. The team got a confidence boost when they placed third in their first competition. And they won the Spirit Award in their second meet.

Mr. Saunders is dedicated to encouraging all of his students to develop their potential to the fullest. “I try to show students that you can be whatever you want to be,” he says. “Embrace what makes you different. Your voice matters. Learn to find your voice.”

A Message of Joy from Justis

In a time of fear and uncertainty, Justis Lopez has found a way to become an ambassador for happiness.

Mr. Lopez and his partner in creativity, Ryan Parker, have built on the elements of hip hop to write a song to brighten children’s spirits while conveying a powerful message.

“Our song – ‘Happyvism’ – is centered on Black and Brown boy joy and the power and significance of self-love as a form of activism and radical resistance,” Mr. Lopez said.

                            Justis Lopez

Watch the music video performed by Lopez and Parker here.

Mr. Lopez received an Alma Exley Memorial Scholarship in 2015 when he was a student in the Neag School of Education at UConn.

Also a Happyvism Book

Lopez and Parker also have produced a children’s book on Happyvism. As Mr. Lopez said, “This book communicates the significance, necessity and power of embracing joy in the face of a world riddled with trauma and oppression specifically as it relates to Black and Brown bodies.

“Additionally, this book embraces the beauty and need for Black and Brown boy joy and emphasizes the fact that maintaining happiness about who you are and what you think, say and do in a world that consistently goes against the grain of your identity is a form of activism in itself. Hence: Happyvism.

“We expect to release the book in December,” he said. “The target audience is K-6 educators. We wanted to create a project for the little ones. It’s all new to us, but we are really excited to be working with Ivy (Horan) on this project.”

Music Video Goes to School

Ivy Horan, honored with an Alma Exley scholarship in 2018, used the music video in her second-grade class at Mayberry School in East Hartford.

“I had been thinking about ways to incorporate more music into my classroom,” she said. “The class was doing an activity about emotions when I remembered Justis’s Happyvism music video. I played it for the students once, and they were hooked. They loved the song. We played it three more times that day.

“After school, I reached out to Justis on Instagram to let him know that we loved his song and were excited for his book.

                            Ivy Horan

“I also wanted to thank him for just being such a positive force,” she added. “Justis said he’d like to send us some of their Happyvism books when they’re ready. I know my students are going to be super excited since they loved his song (and think he’s really cool for making a music video). I am excited to see how Justis’s project progresses, and I am looking for more ways to keep my students involved.”

When the books arrive, Ms. Horan can add them to her classroom library of multicultural books, which are helping her second-graders to affirm their diverse identities.

Congratulations to Ivy Horan and Justis Lopez on their creative collaboration.

  • Woody Exley