Founder’s Blog

Woody Exley’s updates on the Alma Exley Scholars

Angelica Gibbs — Master Teacher

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Master Teacher Angelica Gibbs, right, with her principal, Jenna Kalin, left, and senior
student/advisee Oluwatomisin Ogungbenle.

Over the past 20 years, Alma Exley Scholars have pursued a wide variety of paths within the field of education. Many have matured as outstanding classroom teachers. Others have emerged as principals and as leaders at the district and state levels.

It’s always good to learn about their accomplishments, and it is especially pleasing when a recipient is honored for exemplary work with students.

I was delighted to learn recently that Angelica Gibbs, whom we honored in 2005, has been honored as a Master Teacher. Check out this video in which her students and colleagues speak glowingly of her qualities as an outstanding teacher.

Angie, who grew up in New Haven, graduated from Connecticut College. Her first job was as a Spanish teacher at the Match Charter Public School in Boston. Within two years she earned a master’s degree at Lesley University.

After nine years in Boston, she made a new start by heading west. She signed on as a Spanish teacher at Green Valley Ranch High School, part of the Denver Schools of Science and Technology (DSST) system in Colorado.

After just one year in Denver, she was honored with the designation as a Master Teacher. A master teacher typically has more than six years of experience, has demonstrated strong student achievement, and is a positive contributor to school culture.

Angie teaches Spanish 3 as well as Advanced Placement Spanish and Spanish for Native Speakers to senior students. All of her AP Spanish students passed the AP exam last year — a remarkable achievement — and all of her Spanish 3 students showed tremendous growth over time on their trimester final exams.

She received the honor because of the exam results, her 10 years of experience, and positively strong results in surveys of peers, students, parents and administrators about her teaching, collaboration, communication and leadership.

“I feel honored to earn this distinction after just one year in Denver,” Angie told me. “It’s deeply satisfying to have an impact on the lives of so many young people as a teacher. I hope this kind of recognition inspires others to choose teaching as a career.”

As for me, I’m so pleased for Angie, and I’m delighted to have this opportunity to put the spotlight on another of our outstanding Alma Exley Scholars who are making a difference every day in school systems all across the country.

– Woody Exley




Justis Lopez Full of Energy and Ideas in First Month on the Job

It’s all happening in Mr. Lopez’s classroom.

Justis Lopez is the most recent recipient of the Alma Exley Scholarship. Since receiving his master’s degree from UConn in May, he has begun teaching social studies at his alma mater, Manchester High School.

I had the chance to visit in his classroom the other day when I dropped off some books for his “Lopez Lounge.” And what I saw amazed me.

Only a few months removed from UConn, he has established a classroom that is a testament to his creativity and his connection with his students.


Justis Lopez in the “Lopez Lounge”

One of his first moves upon setting up shop in Room 290 was to establish the Lopez Lounge in one of the back corners of the classroom. There’s a couch, an easy chair, a computer table, a lamp with a Tiffany-type UConn lampshade, and a bookcase crammed with books on a variety of subjects.

“Students who have a hard time sitting still for the entire period can take a break and get comfortable on the couch,” Mr. Lopez told me. “Sometimes before making a presentation to the class, they like to relax there and collect their thoughts.”

Also, Mr. Lopez’s classroom is the place to be during the school’s “Power Hour.” That’s a free period for all students, when they can consult with teachers, work on projects or catch up on their homework.

In Room 290, however, every Friday during Power Hour, it’s time for “Open Mic.” Mr. Lopez invites students from throughout the school to drop by to recite poems, rap, sing, or do whatever their spirit moves them to do in front of the microphone. In just few weeks, the Open Mic session has become a highlight of the week for many students.

Justis Lopez is well known as a showman. He portrayed Jonathan the Husky at UConn sports events during his sophomore year. He has made a name for himself as a master of ceremonies and DJ for hundreds of social events. Now he has a company, Justis League Entertainment, which provides music and photography for school functions, weddings and business events.

He brings his DJ equipment in the classroom every Friday for what he calls “Freestyle Fridays.” He does a freestyle DJ mix of music for his students as they walk into classroom to create a lively environment for learning.

With Mr. Lopez’s showmanship carrying over into his classroom, it seems there’s never a dull moment. I wish I could go back to school and take one of his social studies classes. I’m sure I’d learn a lot and have fun at the same time.

The wall behind Mr. Lopez’s desk is covered with about a dozen photographs of lighthouses. “A teacher is a lighthouse,” he said. I took that to mean that he sees himself as lighting the way and guiding his students through unknown waters on their journey of learning.

– Woody Exley




Desi Nesmith Plays Key Role in Bloomfield Schools’ Turnaround

It was a pleasure to read about the dramatic turnaround in the Bloomfield public schools. And it was extra special to recognize that one of our scholarship recipients has played a leadership role in this achievement.

Several years ago, the situation in the Bloomfield Schools was bleak. Test scores and graduation rates were low. Only half of the high school’s graduates enrolled in two- or four-year colleges.

The predominantly African-American school system offered a stark example of the achievement gap affecting minority and low-income students in Connecticut and throughout the nation.

Now, the picture is much brighter. According to an article by Robert A. Frahm in the CT Mirror, the dramatic improvement in academic performance in Bloomfield has captured the attention of state officials and education reform organizations.

Last year, 71 percent of 10th graders met the state proficiency standard on a statewide mathematics test, compared with 46 percent in 2011. And 89 percent of sophomores met the state standard in reading, up from 62 percent in 2011.

Bloomfield High School’s four-year graduation rate improved to 90 percent in 2014, from 74 percent in 2011. Last year, 72 percent of high school graduates went on to two- or four-year colleges, compared with 51 percent in 2009.

Dramatic improvements also have been accomplished in the lower grades, where 2000 Alma Exley Scholar Desi Nesmith has been a key leader.

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Metcomet Principal Desi Nesmith

In 2011, Mr. Nesmith was named principal of Metacomet School, one of two elementary schools in town. He was selected by James Thompson Jr., who had been named superintendent earlier that year.

Dr. Thompson had been hired to lead a turnaround in Bloomfield, based on his leadership record in the Hartford Schools. He had a vision of higher academic performance in Bloomfield, and Mr. Nesmith shared that vision.

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Dr. James Thompson


Right at the start, the new principal established high expectations for academic performance at Metacomet. And his commitment to setting the bar high has paid off.

By 2013, third-grade classes had surpassed state averages in reading, writing and math on the Connecticut Mastery Test. The third-graders, almost all African-American and Latino children, far outperformed similar groups statewide. For example, 65 percent of Metacomet’s third graders met the state reading goal, compared with about one-third of minority third graders across the state.

What made the difference in Bloomfield? Dr. Thompson focused on strengthening academics, promoting good discipline and behavior, and forging ties with parents and the community. Teachers rewrote the curriculum to align it with statewide Common Core standards, and schools adopted new accountability plans.

The district started new after-school programs, added summer classes and provided additional training for teachers. Newly created school data teams regularly reviewed student academic performance.

The results caught the attention of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform (CCER), a statewide, business-sponsored non-profit group. The CCER issued a report describing the district’s reforms as a blueprint for narrowing the achievement gap.

Three years ago, Bloomfield received notoriety as one of 30 low-performing districts in the state designated for extra funding. Now, the CCER has singled out Bloomfield for making steady progress in all of its schools.

As someone who grew up in Bloomfield, attending Metacomet School in first grade, Desi Nesmith is gratified to have played a part in the resurgence of his hometown’s schools. But he and his colleagues are not resting on their laurels. They know there is much more to accomplish on behalf of the town and its students.

“We’re not complacent about it,” he said. “We’re not finished yet. There’s a long road ahead of us.”

Congratulations to Desi and all of his colleagues among the leadership and faculty of the Bloomfield Schools. Your achievement shows what can be accomplished through enlightened leadership that sets demanding goals and insists on accountability.

At the Alma Exley Scholarship Program, we have been focused on identifying committed future educators who have the potential to make a difference in the lives of their students. It’s most rewarding to see honorees like Desi Nesmith fulfilling their potential and having an impact.

– Woody Exley