News about the program and our honorees

Scholars: Educator Diversity is Essential

The two newest Alma Exley Scholars offered a master class in the importance and impact of teachers of color when they were introduced at a virtual event recently.

Alexus Lee, a master’s degree student at the University of Bridgeport, and Soribel Torres-Jiménez, a senior at UConn, were honored at the 27th annual celebration of the Alma Exley Scholarship Program, whose mission is to increase diversity in the educator workforce. More than 40 educators and supporters of the program attended the celebration held via Zoom.

Ms. Lee and Ms. Torres-Jiménez thanked the program for their scholarships and shared insights into the issue of educator diversity based on their own experiences as students and aspiring teachers.

Alexus Lee

Positive Role Models

Ms. Lee said, in part:

“When I started college, I became a camp counselor at LEAP (Leadership Education and Athletics Partnership), where I helped educate predominantly Black children. This was one of the greatest experiences for me because, for the first time ever, I was around educators who looked like me. They spoke like me and dressed like me. But most important, they resembled the kids.

“So many of these children found positive role models to look up to. Many of them found father and older brother figures to push them to become their best selves. This is extremely important for all students, but especially the minority kids because they may not have these role models at home. I truly believe that students develop a stronger connection and level of trust when they genuinely believe the teacher can understand them because of shared experiences.

The Only Black Teacher

“This school year, I began interning in a school that is predominantly white. I have counted six Black students across all five grades, and there are no Black teachers. Being the only black teacher in the beginning of the school year was hard. When I changed my hair from long extensions to my Afro for the first time, I received comments from the students such as, ‘Why did you cut your hair? It looked better before.’ And, ‘Your hair isn’t supposed to look like that. It should be straight like mine.’

“I’ll admit, these questions and comments were hurtful because I’d never experienced something like this before. And the teachers were just as confused. At first, I felt as though I did not belong in this community. I wanted so badly to go back to LEAP where everyone looked like me.

Explaining the Afro

“Then one moment changed my entire view. This was when I first wore my Afro at my internship class. One of the teachers asked me why I choose to wear my hair like this so often. I was explaining to him that this is how my hair naturally grows, just as his grows straight. Then I looked up and realized there were four other teachers around me eagerly waiting for my response as well.

“At this moment, I realized how important it is to have Black teachers. These students and educators have so many questions about Black people because they have not been around us. They’re not used to us.

“Now, after eight months of teaching here, it’s less common for teachers or students to ask why I ‘cut my hair’ when I go from extensions to my Afro. Most times, they don’t comment at all because they’ve grown more used to me. Students feel comfortable asking me about my skin and my hair now.

“This extends to the Black students in the school as well. Recently, one of them eagerly ran up to me in the hallway. He had the biggest smile and said, ‘Hey! Your hair looks like mine!’ We continued talking because he wanted to know more about how he can take care of it like I do.

Impact on White Students

“The white students in my internship are asking questions because they are genuinely curious, and I am the only one who can teach them about people who look different from them. I can help them understand more about the world they live in. As for the six Black students, they can feel more comfortable in their skin and with their kinky hair knowing that there is a teacher in the building who will always stand up for them.

“In conclusion, Black teachers are so important…in any school. It is important that young Black students see older Black people with good jobs, but it’s also important to expose white students to diversity. It is rare for someone to be around only people who look like them. By answering the children’s questions now, they will be more comfortable around those who look different from them in the future. And that’s why I think it’s so important to have Black teachers in the classroom.”

Soribel Torres-Jiménez

More Educators of Color Are Needed

Ms. Torres-Jiménez said, in part:

“Being a future teacher of color is hard, but worth it. Our education system is doing all students a disservice when there is no representation by educators of color in the education system itself.

“I was born and raised in Waterbury, Connecticut, which is a very diverse community. However, I recall having only three teachers of color from elementary school through high school. Only two of those teachers spoke Spanish.

“My first teacher of color was in third grade, and I had the privilege of having her in fifth grade too. She contributed to the beginning of my passion to become a teacher, specifically for English language learners in urban settings. I was a first-generation college student, and my parents were very unfamiliar with the American school system. They are immigrants from the Dominican Republic and valued the education and opportunities the United States offered my siblings and me.

Language Barrier

“From parent-teacher conferences to science fairs, there was a language barrier which made it difficult for my parents to understand my successes and where I needed more support in school. There is this negative perspective targeted toward minority parents that they ‘do not care’ about their child’s progress and do not find the need to be involved in their studies. In reality, there are reasons why many parents cannot attend school events because of rigorous work schedules, divorced families, limited transportation, language barriers, etc.

“My first teacher of color understood that my family was not any less interested than other families that seemed more involved. She was able to communicate with my parents in Spanish, send home translated information, and even include more cultural awareness in the classroom.

“I no longer felt like an outsider or as if my parents weren’t enough. This teacher allowed me to embrace my identities and she would also share her relatable anecdotes with the class to normalize more than one culture in the classroom.”

Celebrating All Student Backgrounds

“As an educator, you must be able to create environments that support and celebrate all student backgrounds. The classroom is a space that does not highlight one’s deficits; instead, it caters to the student’s strengths. I want to be a future educator that can step in and make all families and cultures feel involved in their child’s education.

“These positions of power need people of color to bring in socially just practices, representation, equity, and love. It’s also important for white students to have teachers of color. In order to dismantle systemic racism and injustices, it’s important for white students to see people of color holding many leadership positions.”


2 Alma Exley Scholars Named

Alexus Lee
Soribel Torres-Jiménez

Students from the University of Connecticut and the University of Bridgeport have been chosen as Alma Exley Scholars for 2023. They are Soribel Torres-Jiménez, a senior at UConn, and Alexus Lee, who is pursuing a master’s degree at Bridgeport after earning a bachelor’s degree from Southern Connecticut State University in May.

Both are majoring in elementary education. Both hail from Waterbury and are graduates of Waterbury Career Academy, a public high school. Both have outstanding records of academic achievement and public service.

The program was able to offer two scholarships again this year because of the growth of the endowment at the Community Foundation of Greater New Britain. The growth was achieved thanks to substantial contributions as well as solid investment gains.

A selection committee of respected educators chose the recipients from among 30 applicants from educator-preparation programs at five universities in Connecticut.

The selection committee was impressed with the high quality of the applicants. All of the applicants were deserving and worthy of the scholarship. We need to keep growing the endowment so that we can award more scholarships in the future.

  • Woody Exley

Math and Social Justice? Sacha Kelly Makes It Real

Sacha Kelly, whom we honored in 2009, has been recognized by the Math Teachers’ Circle 4 Social Justice (MTC4SJ), an organization that puts the spotlight on math teachers who promote social justice.

What does mathematics have to do with social justice? Ms. Kelly explains it this way:

“There are social justice issues that appear to have nothing to do with math. But math is inherently a part of how some of these injustices are designed and perpetuated. By addressing these issues and learning the mathematics behind them we can create the change that needs to happen.”

Applying Math Concepts to Societal Issues

Ms. Kelly is a math teacher at the Academy of Science and Innovation, a magnet high school in New Britain. CT. In teaching algebra and geometry, she shows students how mathematical concepts can be used to address various societal issues.

  • Policing and race? Understanding can be achieved by describing categorial data.
  • Inequities in education? Apply a concept called least squares regressional line.
  • Does gun control work? To find out, think about regression inference.
  • Treating stroke? The hypothesis test for two means can provide insight.
  • Is climate change real? Try using a concept called inference for matched pairs.
  • Who’s better: LeBron James or Michael Jordan? Percentiles and Z-scores could provide the answer.
  • How much money do social-media influencers make? Interval for a mean will help clear this up.

In addition to teaching algebra and geometry, Ms. Kelly has helped create an SAT prep and enrichment class as well as an intervention program for students struggling with math.

Celebrating People of Color in Science and Math

Her classroom walls are dedicated to celebrating people of color within STEM to allow students of color to see themselves represented in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

She also mentors a group of future educators enrolled in the CT Teacher Residency Program, which aims to bring more people of color into teaching. She also tutors future teachers to help them to pass the Math Praxis exam, which aspiring teachers must pass to earn certification.

Ms. Kelly was part of MTC4SJ’s inaugural Summer Stars cohort in 2021 and was one of the authors of the Mural Mathematics lesson.

“I loved being part of the group,” she said. “It allowed me to dedicate time to building the social justice curriculum that I and other like-minded educators can use as a resource in our classrooms.

Sacha Kelly is one of the artists who created this street mural in Hartford to make a plea for social justice.

Street Art for Social Justice

The teacher has made a name for herself as an artist who incorporates math into her art. She has worked on multiple Black Lives Matter murals to support the BLM Movement in Hartford, Bloomfield, and Windsor. One of her art pieces is displayed in the New Britain City Hall.

Sacha Kelly participated in the creation of this mural at Bloomfield Town Hall.

Entering the World of Social Justice Math

Ms. Kelly has long brought concepts of social justice into her teaching of mathematics. This reflects her background as a student of color who saw first-hand the under-representation of Black teachers in the public school system, particularly in the STEM field.

“I had phenomenal teachers of color who inspired me to give back by becoming a teacher,” she said. “I have been able to view the public education system from both sides–as a student and an educator. My experience has taught me the importance of drawing from my racial and cultural background in the classroom. Incorporating social justice issues into my teaching came natural to me because the societal issues that my students care about are on my mind as well.

Supporting Academic Achievement

“As I have Incorporated social justice into my classroom, I have seen students reflect on their mathematics abilities and realize they are stronger than they initially thought,” she said. “This realization also extends into their academic achievement overall. I have seen my students become more likely to continue education after high school and hopefully enter the STEM field after being exposed to social justice in math class.

“For students, this exposure is important because the content allows them to see themselves as change agents in society,” she added. “I have seen students realize that by learning the mathematics behind these civic issues, they can create the change that needs to happen. They realize that they can utilize math in a way that can directly affect their lives.”

  • Woody Exley