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The Cardona Era Begins at U.S. Department of Education

Vice President Kamala Harris administers the oath of office to Dr. Miguel Cardona as wife Marissa holds the Bible and son and daughter, Miguel Jr and Celine, look on.

What a thrill to watch on Facebook as Vice President Kamala Harris administered the oath of office to our own Miguel Cardona as U.S. Secretary of Education. How gracious of Vice President Harris to send warm and personal greetings to Miguel’s parents, Hector and Sarah Cardona, who were watching at home in Meriden.

Hearty congratulations to Dr. Cardona and best wishes for success in meeting the challenges of your new position. We know you will serve as an excellent representative of the nation’s students and teachers as well as the public at-large.

Dr. Cardona talked about his plans for addressing the challenges facing him when George Stephanopoulos interviewed him on ABC’s Good Morning America on his second day on the job. Click here to view the interview (after a brief ad).

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

Diversity Has an Impact at Bridgeport Academy

Several years ago, the leadership of New Beginnings Family Academy placed a high priority on building a diverse staff.

The initiative has borne fruit as 53 percent of those who work directly with students are persons of color. This includes teachers, full-time teaching assistants, nurses and social workers.

What’s more, 57 percent of the school’s leaders are persons of color, including the director and the principals of the elementary and middle schools.

The charter school in Bridgeport serves pre-kindergarten through eighth grade students. Ninety-five percent of the students are children of color, and most come from low-income families.

Ronelle Swagerty, director and CEO

“We set out to hire qualified adults who look like the children we serve and whose cultural competency ensures deep, meaningful relationships,” says Ronelle Swagerty, director and CEO.

Emotionally Responsive Model

“Our educational model emphasizes emotional responsiveness, and it helps to have those cultural competencies in the classroom so children feel connected,” she says. “Relationships are key. I’m not saying relationships can’t be developed by others, but it’s nice for children to see so many adults in school who look like them.”

How did the leadership achieve such a diverse staff? They took a multi-layered approach that included word-of-mouth and advertising. The Human Resources office has a full-time manager and a part-time recruiter who attend every minority-teacher recruitment fair in the state and some beyond the state.

“Research has shown that children fare far better in an environment with adults who look like them,” Ms. Swagerty says. And teachers of color have an impact on families as well. Some members of the staff are immigrants who can communicate with parents in their own languages.

Diversity of Gender and Ethnicity

Valore Turner, principal of the middle school, says that diversity of gender is just as important as diversity of ethnicity. Currently, the middle-school teaching staff is 50 percent male and female. Before the push for diversity, there were only a few male teachers on the entire staff from Pre-K through eighth grade.

Valore Turner, middle school principal

“It’s important to have male teachers,” she says. “It’s beautiful to see my boys fall in love with reading for the first time simply because their language arts teacher is a man who loves and advocates for pleasure reading.

“Diversity has an impact not only on academics, but also on children’s emotional development,” Ms. Turner says.

“A boys group, led by a male social worker, met once a week last year,” she says. “This group came about after it was observed that the boys had burning questions and were freely spreading incorrect information among one another. Under the guidance of a licensed social worker, a boys’ group was created to help prevent the spread of misinformation. Anonymously, male students put their questions into a jar and the social worker addressed them during the weekly meetings.”

Says Ms. Turner, “It’s important for children to have positive role models of all races and sexes, and we want to ensure that faculty fulfills this need.”

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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.”