Previous Recipients

Marquis Harris, 2020 Alma Exley Scholar, is in his senior year at the University of Saint Joseph, West Hartford, where he is pursuing a degree in secondary education majoring in English. He grew up in Waterbury, Conn., where he graduated from Wilby High school. He is doing his student teaching in the fall semester of 2021 at his alma mater.

Isabella “Ivy” Horan of Duxbury, Mass., whom we honored in 2019, is a second-grade teacher at Mayberry Elementary School in East Hartford. She received her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from UConn in May 2019 and is scheduled to receive her master’s degree from UConn in May 2020.

Theodore Martinez, who grew up in Hartford and Windsor, Conn., is a first-grade teacher at the Academy of International Studies Elementary School, a pre-K to Grade 5 school in South Windsor operated by the Capitol Region Education Council (CREC), previously known as the International Magnet School for Global Leadership. He is also Lead Course Instructor for the Connecticut Teacher Residency Program. He received his Master of Education degree from the University of Hartford in December 2018. He also holds a Master of Science in psychology from the University of Southern New Hampshire, and a Bachelor of General Studies, Human Services, from the University of Connecticut. He is a graduate of the Metropolitan Learning Center, a CREC high school, in Bloomfield. We honored him in the spring of 2018.

Chastity Berrios Hernández is teaching in a third-grade, bilingual classroom at Clinton Avenue Elementary School in her hometown of New Haven, Conn. She received her master’s degree in education from Fairfield University in May 2018. She also holds a bachelor’s degree from Fairfield, with a major in English and minors in educational studies, Spanish, and Latin American and Caribbean studies. .

Orlando Valentin Jr. is teaching fourth grade at Casimir Pulaski Elementary School in his hometown of Meriden, Conn. He is an equity leader in the school district and is involved in efforts to recruit and retain teachers of color. He received a bachelor’s degree in elementary education with a concentration in science from the University of Connecticut in 2015 and a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from UConn in May 2016.

Justis Lopez, who hails from Manchester, Conn., is a graduate student in the Educational Entrepreneurship M.S.Ed. program at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also serving as university-assisted community schools site coordinator for West Philadelphia High School. He is also an adjunct professor at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Tex., teaching remotely from Philadelphia. Prior to entering the master’s program at Penn, he served as alumni affairs coordinator at the Council for Opportunity in Education, Washington, D.C. Before that, he taught social studies at Urban Assembly School of Applied Math and Science, a public school in The Bronx, N.Y. He began his career teaching social studies at Manchester High School, from which he graduated in 2010. He received a master’s degree in education in 2015 from the University of Connecticut. He also holds a bachelor’s degree in education with a major in history from UConn.

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Jessica Myers began her career as an elementary education teacher in New Haven. She is a graduate of Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School in New Haven. She received a bachelor of science in education and a bachelor of arts in liberal studies, with minors in English and French, from Southern Connecticut State University in May 2015.

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Margaret Seclen, who grew up in Stratford, Conn., is teaching second grade at Robert J. O’Brien STEM Academy in East Hartford. She received a B.S in elementary education and a B.A. in history with a minor in international studies from the University of Connecticut in May 2013. She received her master’s degree in elementary education from UConn in May 2014.

Jessica Raugitinane is a fourth-grade English and social studies teacher at a dual-language school in her hometown of Alexandria, Va. In 2016-2017 she taught English as a second language to university students in Quito, Ecuador. She began her career as a fifth-grade teacher in Washington, D.C. She received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut in May 2013 with majors in elementary education, English and Spanish along with a minor in Latino studies. She received her master’s degree in elementary education from UConn in May 2014.

Sheena Boyle, who grew up in Waterbury, Conn., has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Connecticut. She completed undergraduate majors in English literature and English secondary education.

Maria Rosario Melendez teaches at The Villages Charter School in Central Florida. Previously, she taught Spanish at Cesar A. Batalla School in Bridgeport. She is a graduate of the University of Costa Rica and received her Connecticut teaching credentials through the Alternate Route to Certification. She also holds a master’s degree in ESOL from Fairfield University.

Khalil Graham, Ph.D., who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., is founding executive director of Sumter STEAM Charter School in Sumter, S.C. Previously he was managing director of the Aspiring Leaders program at Teaching Trust, a partnership with Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Tex., which prepares educators for leadership positions in urban schools. Previously, he was principal of Friendship Collegiate Academic Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. He previously served as founding principal of IDEA Walzem Charter School in San Antonio, Tex. He began his career as assistant principal and dean at YES Prep Public Charter School in Houston.  A graduate of Loomis Chaffee High School, Windsor, Conn., he received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Richmond, a master’s degree from Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Conn., and a doctorate in educational leadership and administration  from the University of Kentucky in 2013.

Sacha Kelly is a mathematics teacher at the Academy of Science and Innovation, New Britain, Conn., operated by the Capitol Region Education Council (CREC). Previously, she was a mathematics teacher at Big Picture High School, a public magnet school in Bloomfield, Conn. A graduate of Stuyvesant High School, New York City, she received a bachelor of science degree in mathematics from Trinity College, Hartford, in 2007 and a master of arts in education from the University of Saint Joseph, West Hartford, in 2009.

Sibani Sengupta, Ph.D., is assistant principal and also teaches science classes at Sacred Heart Academy, Hamden, Conn. She received her Connecticut teaching certificate from the Alternate Route to Certification in 2008. She received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Calcutta, India, in 1990 and 1992, respectively. She earned a Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut in 2000 and subsequently did research as a post-doctoral fellow at the UConn Health Center. She was named the Outstanding Biology Teacher in Connecticut by the National Association of Biology Teachers in 2010, and she was named the High School Level Exemplary Educator of the Year for 2014-2015 by the Connecticut Association of Schools.

Vernon-James Riley is associate dean of regional support at Relay Graduate School of Education, Washington, D.C. Previously, he served as the principal of North Star Academy West Side Park Middle School in Newark, N.J. Earlier in his career, he was founding dean of students at Summit Academy in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Founding Director of Operations at Amani Public Charter School in Mount Vernon, N.Y. A native of Harlem, N.Y., Vernon received a Bachelor of Arts degree in American Studies with a departmental concentration in Secondary Social Studies from Yale in May 2008, and master’s degrees in curriculum and instruction from Michigan State University in 2009 and a master’s in education leadership from Teachers College Columbia University in 2013.

Violet Jiménez Sims, Ed.D., is associate director of teacher education (school-university partnerships) at the Neag School of Education at UConn. Previously, she was assistant principal at Hartford Montessori Magnet School. Earlier in her career, she was a bilingual educator and instructional coach at Manchester High School. She began as a Spanish teacher at New Britain High School. A graduate of E.C. Goodwin Technical High School, New Britain, Conn., she received a bachelor’s degree in theater studies and a master’s degree in higher education administration from UConn, where she was employed before obtaining her Connecticut teaching certificate through the Alternate Route to Certification in May 2007. She received her doctorate from the University of Bridgeport in May 2018.

Giulietta Romero O’Coin is a  kindergarten teacher at Waddell Elementary School in Manchester, Conn. She is a graduate of Windham High School, and has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Connecticut.

Santosha Oliver, Ph.D., has been assistant superintendent for instructional services with Windsor, Conn., Public Schools, since 2016. She began her education career as a science teacher at East Hartford High School. Subsequently, served as coordinator of assessment, evaluation and research for the East Hartford Public Schools, assistant principal of the O’Brien STEM Academy of the East Hartford Public Schools, and the administrator in charge of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in the Manchester, Conn., Public Schools. A graduate of Manchester High School, she holds a B.S. in biology from Morgan State University and a Ph.D. in genetics and developmental biology from the University of Connecticut. She earned her Connecticut teaching certificate in the Alternate Route to Certification.

Blenda Chau is teaching at Ellsworth Avenue School in her hometown of Danbury, Conn. Previously, she taught at Cesar A. Batalla School in Bridgeport, Conn. She is a graduate of Danbury High School and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Connecticut.

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Zakia Parrish, Ph.D., who grew up in Gary, Ind., is the Executive Director of Operations and Process for Fairfield Public Schools.  She was previously Principal at Hill Regional Career High School and Hyde School of Health Sciences & Sports Medicine, both magnet schools  in the New Haven system. Previously she was an Assistant Principal at Wilbur Cross High School and taught science for several years at Hill Regional Career High School in New Haven. She holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in civil and environmental engineering from Purdue University. She earned her Connecticut teaching certificate in the Alternate Route to Certification, her administrative certificate from Sacred Heart University and her superintendent certificate from UConn.

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Angelica Gibbs, who grew up in New Haven, Conn., is a Master Teacher in Spanish at Green Valley Ranch High School, part of the Denver Schools of Science and Technology (DSST)  school system in Colorado. She was a Spanish teacher at the Match Charter Public High School in Boston for nine years before moving to Denver in 2014. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Connecticut College, where she majored in education and Hispanic studies, and a master’s degree from Lesley University.

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Nadine Rosa of Meriden, Conn., is a special education teacher at Platt High School in Meriden. She has a bachelor’s degree in education from Southern Connecticut State University and a master’s degree in education from the University of Saint Joseph, West Hartford, Conn.

Han-Ya Annie Hsu was Director in the Global Student Success office at Northeastern University in Boston, until taking a break from academia to take care of her children. Previously, she served as Chief of Staff in the Office of the Provost at the Asian University for Women in Chittagong, Bangladesh, which offers a liberal arts and sciences education for women. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Yale University with and a Master’s in Education from Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and resides in Qualla, N.C., and teaches at Swain County High School. Previously she served as executive director of the Cherokee Preservation Foundation. She holds degrees from Yale University and the College of William and Mary. Her debut novel, Even As We Breathe, was released by the University Press of Kentucky in 2020, a finalist for the Weatherford Award and named one of NPR’s Best Books of 2020. Her first novel manuscript, Going to Water is winner of the Morning Star Award for Creative Writing from the Native American Literature Symposium (2012) and a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction (2014). Clapsaddle’s work has appeared in Yes! Magazine, Lit Hub, Smoky Mountain Living Magazine, South Writ Large and The Atlantic. She is the former co-editor of the Journal of Cherokee Studies and serves on the board of trustees for the North Carolina Writers Network.

Priscilla Noriega Chessman, from Brownsville, Tex., graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in secondary education and taught at San Benito High School in San Benito, Tex., before earning a law degree from the University of Texas School of Law. She has been serving as Staff Attorney and Medical Legal Partnership Director at Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid.  She is working on education law and advocating for students with regard to special education services and discipline issues. In this role, she continues to have an impact in the classrooms in South Texas.

Ollie-Rubiah Williams Oliver, a graduate of Windsor (Conn.) High School, is teaching at the Farmington Valley Diagnostic Center operated by the Capitol Region Education Council (CREC), in Simsbury, Conn., where she was named Teacher of the Year for 2008-09. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Temple University in Philadelphia and a master’s degree in education from the University of Saint Joseph, West Hartford, Conn.

Desi Nesmith is deputy commissioner in the Connecticut State Department of Education. Previously, he was chief school turnaround officer at the Department of Education. Before joining the State Department of Education in 2015, he was principal of Metacomet Elementary School in Bloomfield, Conn. Earlier, he was principal of America’s Choice SAND School, Hartford, where he was named Best First-Year Principal by the Connecticut Association of Schools. He began his teaching career at Mayberry Elementary School in East Hartford, Conn., where he was named Teacher of the Year for 2005-2006. In 2014 he received the prestigious Milken Educator Award. He grew up in Bloomfield, Conn., graduated from Northwest Catholic High School, West Hartford, Conn., and earned bachelor’s, master’s and post-graduate degrees in education from the University of Connecticut. 

Chi-Ann Lin, a graduate of Newington (Conn.) High School, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from the University of Connecticut. She is teaching history at Staples High School in Westport, Conn.

Miguel Cardona, Ed.D., was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as U.S. Secretary of Education in the Biden Administration in March 2021. He had served as Commissioner of Education for the state of Connecticut since 2019. Previously, he had served as assistant superintendent for teaching and learning in the Meriden, Conn., Public Schools. He began his career as a fourth grade teacher at Israel Putnam Elementary School in Meriden and served from 2003 to 2013 as principal of Hanover Elementary School in Meriden, where he was named Connecticut’s National Distinguished Principal in 2012. A graduate of Wilcox Technical High School in Meriden, he earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Central Connecticut State University and a master’s degree and doctorate from the University of Connecticut.

Glenn Allen Jr., a graduate of East Hartford (Conn.) High School, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from the University of Connecticut. He is Dean of Students and a member of School Site Council at Carson High School in the Los Angeles (Calif.) Unified School District. The School Site Council is an elected group of students, parents, and school staff who evaluate and address the needs of the school and determine how Title 1 funds can best be used to serve the students at the school site. (Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act provides federal funds to schools in which low-income children make up at least 40 percent of enrollment. Funds are used for programs that serve all students in order to raise the achievement of the lowest-performing students.)

Oscar Josue Rodriguez graduated from Bulkeley High School, Hartford, Conn., earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from the University of Connecticut, and joined the faculty of East Hartford High School as a teacher of English language learners. He has taught high school English in Puerto Rico and has been teaching English language learners at a Department of Defense school at Fort Rucker, Alabama.