Founder’s Blog

Woody Exley’s updates on the Alma Exley Scholars

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


Violet Jiménez Sims Elected to New Britain Board of Education

Alma Exley Scholars are having a big impact — in the classroom and beyond.

Congratulations to Violet Sims, who has been elected to the New Britain Board of Education on the Democratic ticket. Taking her seat on the board will be the culmination of years of civic engagement in New Britain, where she has been a tireless advocate for better schools.

Ms. Sims came to the United States from the Dominican Republic at the age of six. After graduating from E.C. Goodwin Technical High School in New Britain, she earned three degrees from the University of Connecticut, a B.A. in Theater Studies, an M.A. in Higher Education Administration, and a Sixth-Year degree in Curriculum and Instruction with a concentration in Bilingual and Multicultural Education. Currently, she is a doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership at the University of Bridgeport.

After teaching at New Britain High School for 10 years and Manchester High School for three,  she took a position this year as assistant principal at the Montessori Magnet School in Hartford.

She and her husband, D’Andre Sims, a mathematics teacher at Manchester High School, have two daughters in the New Britain Schools.

I’m grateful for her involvement in the Alma Exley Scholarship Program as a member of the Selection Committee. Since being chosen as an Alma Exley Scholar in 2008, she has been a faithful attendee at our annual receptions, honoring and congratulating her newest colleagues.

Deeply involved in the New Britain community, she is a member of the Executive Board of the local branch of the NAACP. She is president of the Diaspora Multicultural Society, Inc., which is New Britain’s first multicultural-themed social club. And she was the first president and a founding member of Altrusa International of Greater Hartford, a service organization with the purpose of empowering women and improving literacy.

Looking ahead to her service on the Board of Education, Ms. Sims said, “I hope to advocate for funding, and the responsible use of funds, so that New Britain families and students receive the best education and services that can be offered by the school district, regardless of neighborhood, home language, or ability.”

As a former student in the New Britain Public Schools, a former educator in the district, and the parent of children who attend the schools, Ms. Sims brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to her position on the Board of Education. I’m sure she will be a strong advocate for the children of New Britain and for the betterment of the entire community.

Please join me in congratulating her at

– Woody Exley