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News about the program and our honorees

Biden to Nominate Cardona for Education Secretary

The Alma Exley scholarship family is beyond excited over the news that President-elect Biden will nominate our own Miguel Cardona to join his cabinet as Secretary of Education.

When we honored Miguel as an Alma Exley Scholar in 1998, the selection committee knew that he had a bright future. And he has fulfilled our expectations again and again throughout his remarkable career in education.

Dr. Miguel Cardona

Dr. Cardona is just one of the many talented and dedicated individuals whom we have honored and who have gone on to make a difference as outstanding teachers and educational leaders. Supporters of our program over the past 25 years can feel good about playing a part in helping them to launch their careers.

Roots in Meriden

When Miguel was born, his parents lived in a public housing project in Meriden. He started school speaking Spanish. After graduating from Wilcox Technical High School in Meriden, he enrolled Central Connecticut State University with plans to become a teacher.

At Central, he was named one of the first Alma Exley Scholars. Upon graduation, he took a position as a fourth-grade teacher in his hometown of Meriden. His talent was quickly recognized, and at age 28 he became the youngest principal in the state. In 2012 he was named Connecticut’s Principal of the Year. He also served as co-chairman of a state task force examining achievement gaps and recommending remedies to the legislature.

He earned his doctorate at the University of Connecticut and was named Meriden’s assistant superintendent for teaching and learning. Then last year he became Commissioner of Education for the State of Connecticut.

First in the Nation

Under his leadership, Connecticut recently became the first state to require high schools to offer elective courses in Black and Latino studies.

Family is Numero Uno for Dr. Cardona. His wife, Marissa, daughter, Celine, and son, Miguel Jr., were at his side when he took the oath of office as Connecticut’s Commissioner of Education.

As a candidate, Biden indicated that he would choose an education secretary with experience in world of K-12 schools. Dr. Cardona fills that bill, having worked as a teacher, principal and administrator.

As reported in the Hartford Courant, U.S. Richard Blumenthal said, “His leaving would be bittersweet because he’s great and we’d miss him, but it’s precisely because he’s great that he would be a valuable education secretary.”

Correcting Inequities

Dr. Cardona has long focused on correcting inequities among students in our public schools. He has consistently voiced concern that the pandemic was hurting certain students more than others.

After the pandemic forced schools to close, he worked to procure devices for students who needed them to participate in remote schooling and pushed to reopen buildings.

Dr. Cardona has been a strong advocate for Connecticut’s students and teachers in many interviews on local news media

Impact of the Pandemic

“While many things are unclear during this time in our nation’s history, there is one thing that is not: this epidemic has further exacerbated inequities that have been there all along,” he wrote in May.

The new education secretary’s first task will be to help guide schools through the final phase of the pandemic. Biden has said he wants to see schools reopen and to give them the support they need to do so, including “clear, consistent, effective national guidelines.”

Those of us who know Dr. Cardona and have followed his career over the years know that he is the right man for that job.

  • Woody Exley

Cherokee Teacher Gains National Notice as Novelist

Annette Bird Saunooke Clapsaddle’s novel came out in September, and it’s already in its second printing.

Her book, Even as We Breathe, has received rave reviews. Publishers Weekly called it “a lush debut, and “an astonishing addition to World War II and Native American literature.”

Since her novel came out, she has been doing virtual readings – at least three a week — at bookstores in New York and across the country. And she was interviewed recently by National Public Radio correspondent Neda Ulaby at her home in the mountains of western North Carolina. Click here to listen to the interview.

Annette Bird Saunooke Clapsaddle

Honored While at Yale

We honored Ms. Clapsaddle with a scholarship in 2003 when she was an undergraduate at Yale. She earned a master’s degree at William & Mary and then returned to her hometown to work for her tribe, first as assistant to the principal chief and later as executive director of the Cherokee Preservation Foundation. She has taught English and Cherokee Studies for 10 years at Swain County High School, whose student population is 30 percent Native American.

She lives in Cherokee, N.C., the main town within the Qualla Boundary, home to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, to which she belongs. The Eastern Band was formed by the Cherokees who escaped being displaced by the Indian Removal Act of 1830. When the federal government forced the Cherokees off their land and drove them west in what became known as the Trail of Tears, some hid in the mountains and remained. Later they reclaimed some of their land and reconstituted themselves as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

“My Cherokee ancestors have been here, we would say, since the beginning of time,” she told NPR. “Other people would say over ten thousand years.”

A World War II Mystery

The novel is a mystery set at an upscale resort in nearby Asheville during World War II. The resort served as an internment camp for valuable prisoners of war, such as diplomats and their families. The main character is a teenage boy named Cowney, a Cherokee who is accused in the disappearance of a diplomat’s daughter. While Cowney tries to prove his innocence, he also attempts to unravel his complicated family history.

You can order the book here.

The Impact on Her Students

In writing her novel, Ms. Clapsaddle was determined to create characters her students might know in real life.

“For me, that’s what I set out to do, is give my students a story,” she told NPR. One of her students reported he never thought he’d see so much of himself in a character as he did with Cowney. She was deeply moved when he sent her text saying, “People just don’t write about people like us.”

That review is her favorite.

But here’s one of my own. Having just finished the book, I would say that it is more of a love story than a mystery. It’s a compelling love story that ends with an intense emotional impact. The story touched me in a personal way. I think this was not only because of the compelling characters and their fate, but also because of the author’s deeply felt connection with the locale of the story in the ancestral homeland of the Cherokees.

Hearty congratulations, Annette.

  • Woody Exley

Street Mural in Windsor Targets Racism

Sacha Kelly, a mathematics teacher and artist who helped create Black Lives Matter murals in Hartford and Bloomfield, is still spreading the word. She is one of the artists who converged on Windsor recently to paint a colorful mural that spells out “End Racism Now.”

Ms. Kelly, whom we honored in 2009, teaches at the Academy of Science and Innovation, a magnet high school in New Britain run by the Capitol Region Education Council (CREC).

Sacha Kelly

The mural is on the pavement between the public library and the Eagle Green. Each of the 12 letters conveys a message of its own. Ms. Kelly, the lead artist of the project, painted the letter ‘I.’

“It has different hues of skin colors just to symbolize all the different tones and complexions of the human race, and it says ‘I am a human’,” she told Fox61 in an on-camera interview. Her letter features a geometric design showing the spectrum of skin colors, from chocolate brown to creamy white.

TV News Report

Thanks to the Hartford Courant and Fox61 for covering this story. Click here to view the Fox61 report, which features Sacha and Khaiim Kelly.

Levey Kardulis of Hartford, the project manager, said the mural was intended to emphasize unity. “I did not want chains and handcuffs,” he told the Courant. “I want to bring people together, not create lines of separation. This isn’t done for protest. It’s about community, about bridging the gap.”

Acts of Kindness

Khaiim Kelly, Sacha’s husband, the rapper known as Self Suffice, was also involved in the project. He pointed out that the project has inspired acts of kindness from passers-by, including a woman who was concerned about the artists’ comfort.

“She said ‘no, no no,’ and she walked across the street and got some knee pillows for the artists to lean on Mr. Kelly said. “Another couple came by and said, ‘How can we help?’ You know they started sweeping leaves out of the way.”

Participants from Three Schools

The project already is bringing people together, including students from three of the town’s schools, Windsor High School, Loomis-Chaffee High School and Medina Academy, a Muslim private school.

Said Kardulis, “These are three schools here in the town of Windsor that haven’t worked together before, and they were all working on social justice programs in school, but you know I brought them together to work on this one project.”

Tony Le, of East Hartford, painted the letter ‘S,’ which was centered around voting.

“It’s your right to vote,” he said. “You’ve earned it. They can’t stop you. It’s your vote, your voice. We have to promote that unification of many lives, of many cultures, because this is America.”

An Ongoing Mission

The artists hope that even though the painting is complete, their mission will continue.

Said Sacha Kelly, “I think that is the answer to ending racism. The more we work together, the more we realize that we have more in common than different.”

Desiree Primus of the Windsor Human Relations Commission said the mural reflects the town’s proactive social-justice stance. The town council declared racism a public health crisis in June, and the commission has sponsored a Zoom series on racial justice and community policing, a book club, food drives and a vigil on the green.