Board of Ed Latinos Tackle Distinct Challenges


Felix Rodriguez
By Linda Tishler Levinson
As the academic year begins and the state’s new education reform legislation goes into effect, school systems throughout Connecticut are looking at how they can best meet the state’s new goals.
One particular challenge in this state is working to equalize educational achievement between city and suburban school districts and between minority and non-minority students. With this in mind, spoke with three Latino board of education members, two from major cities and one from a Hartford suburb, and asked them what they  view as the major obstacles surrounding education and the Latino community.
Help Each Kid Succeed Individually
Felix Rodriguez was appointed to the Waterbury Board of Education in August. Born and raised in Waterbury, his mother moved to the state from Puerto Rico in 1967. His father left the family when he was 5, and he grew up in the projects.
At age 19 Rodriguez became a father. Wanting to be a good father but lacking a role model, Rodriguez said he worked hard to turn his life around.
Today he works for the state as a special assistant to the deputy commissioner of the state Department of Children and Families. He recently graduated from the University of Bridgeport with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in criminal justice.
He noted that Waterbury ’s population is very diverse with a high percentage of Latino children in the schools.
“My passion has always been about youth development,” Rodriguez said. “We need to ensure that our kids are getting the best education possible.”
The challenges for him on the school board include making sure children have the resources to learn, making sure they do not drop out and making sure the school does not just push them through the grades.
“A lot of our society’s problems are because there’s not a role model in the home, not a father in the home,” he said.
“We need to prepare these kids so they can succeed,” he said, stressing that it’s about “how are we helping each kid succeed individually.”
Equal Educational Opportunities
Robert Cotto Jr. also serves on the school board of an urban district. Cotto is a member of the Hartford Board of Education.
He is a senior policy fellow for Connecticut Voices for Children. Prior to that, he taught for seven years at the Metropolitan Learning Center, a magnet school in Bloomfield.
Cotto, who lives in Hartford ’s Frog Hollow neighborhood, is a graduate of Wethersfield High School and Dartmouth College, where he studied sociology with a minor in education. He received a master’s degree in education from Harvard University .
“I got some great opportunities to study in great places,” he said.
The challenge for the Latino community is to make sure the children have the equal educational opportunities, particularly since they typically reside in our around the larger cities. With schools being funded by municipal property taxes, it is tough for the cities to have the same resources as the wealthier districts, he said.
While the state Education Cost Sharing grants have helped somewhat, there still are disparities he said.
“Do we have enough resources to meet the needs of all kids?” he asked, particularly the needs of bilingual, bicultural and special-needs children.
“Our kids are more likely to have challenges,” he said.
He said he feels it is important for schools to establish relationships with families and children.
While the Sheff vs. O’Neill equal education lawsuit has helped, he said some populations — particularly Latinos and especially those who are English-language learners — may be underrepresented in the magnet schools. He said those schools rely heavily on people’s networks to know about them and to know how to apply for admission to them.
One concern in the urban districts, he said, is that many have appointed rather than elected school board members. Hartford, he said, has a board which has some elected members, but the majority are appointed. As an elected board member, Cotto said he feels a responsibility to the community in a way an appointed member may not.
In contrast, he said, the suburban districts have elected boards of education.
A Diverse Suburb
Mark Overmyer-Velazquez
Mark Overmyer-Velazquez is a member of the West Hartford Board of Education. He is an associate professor of history at the University of Connecticut and director of the Institute of Latina/o, Caribbean and Latin American Studies at UConn. He holds a doctorate from Yale University.
Overmyer-Velazquez said that while West Hartford is viewed as a wealthy, suburban district, the town is far more diverse than that perception.
“Close to 40 percent of our kids are kids of color,” he said. “The town has very distinct neighborhoods.”
He said the challenge in his town is serving the educational needs of a community that is so diverse. There are particular challenges that are different for those whose families have been in the state for generations and those who are new immigrants or who are from non-English dominant communities.