As Connecticut’s new commissioner of education, Miguel Cardona has been assigned an important role in setting the course for education across Connecticut.
As the first Latino to hold this post, Cardona also adds another level of achievement to an already prominent group of Hispanic educators who have been building a tradition of educational service and leadership, not only to benefit their ethnic community but all students.
“In Connecticut, we have more Latino leaders in education than in Texas,” said Estela Lopez, vice president of the state Board of Education and an accomplished Latina educator herself. “All the above work for all students, but at the same time are great role models who ensure that Latinos receive fair and equitable opportunities,” Dr. Lopez said.
Among the most notable success stories are in higher education where Latinas Dr. Zulma Toro at Central Connecticut University and Elsa Nunez at Eastern Connecticut State University are serving as presidents of state universities, and Daisy Cocco De Filippis is at the helm of Naugatuck Valley Community College. Nunez also is vice president for state universities.
Other Latinos also hold upper echelon positions at several two- and four-year colleges, are high-level administrators in local school districts, notably superintendents Leslie Torres-Rodriguez in Hartford and Patricia Garcia in Windham, and are active members of influential state boards and associations.
However, the heritage of Hispanics and education in Connecticut also has its downside. Hispanic students have a history of underperformance in school which includes an above-average dropout and chronic absenteeism rates and a below-average college attendance and graduation rates.
Statewide, Hispanic/Latinos represented 16.9 percent of the chronic absentees in 2018-18, meaning they have been out of school for any reason for at least 18 days or ten percent of the school year. This figure compares to 10.7 percent for all students, 7.2 percent for whites and 15.3 percent for African-Americans.
In Hartford, more than 30 percent of Latino students are annually identified as chronic absentees.
Dr. Torres-Rodriguez has set reducing this educational liability is a major goal for city public schools this academic year.
Changing this negative history is not expected to be easy or take place overnight. “It is a slow process.” Dr. Lopez said.
“There has been relatively no progress in chronic absenteeism or out of school suspensions where Latinos represent a higher proportion,” said the former vice-chancellor of academic affairs for the Connecticut State University System (CSUS) and recent interim provost at the Board of Regents.
In addition, Dr. Lopez said, “there has been small progress in high school graduation rates, 74.8 percent for the state, and in meeting benchmarks for college and career readiness. However, she added, Latinos continue to lag in college completion.
Another red flag issue is an under-representation of minority teachers in the public school systems. In several urban districts, Hispanics comprise a majority of the enrollment but only one-tenth of the faculty.
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“Our schools should reflect our demographic,” said Nancy Rodriguez, a Latina serving on the New Britain Board of Education. In Hardware city, 65.8 percent of the students are Hispanic but only 10.8 percent of the teachers.
In recent years, educators and state officials have revved up efforts to put more teachers who understand students’ diverse heritages and “look like them” at the front of classrooms. This includes the legislature’s approval this year of a minority teacher recruitment and retention bill.
Rodriguez advocates promoting pathways for adult learners to become teachers. Other districts have concentrated on recruiting minority teachers from in and out of state.
Cardona said, “We are working aggressively to have diverse students look into the teaching profession.” The commissioner also advocates developing reciprocity agreements to bring highly qualified teachers into Connecticut from other areas.
The Hartford-based Capital Region Education Council has launched a teacher residency program for which it has high hopes as one solution to overcoming the minority teacher shortage.
As commissioner, Cardona has stressed the need for an educational environment where bilingualism, and not just Spanish, along with sharing and honoring diverse culture and heritage are recognized as assets not obstacles to success.
In the past, he said, programs existed to subtract students native language, Cardona said, “now we want students to maintain their native language and honor biculturalism.”
“I am as American as apple pie and rice and beans.Miguel Cardona, Education Commissioner, Connecticut
Dr. Toro, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, recalled there was a time in this country when “growing up speaking Spanish was not a good thing. Today, she said, knowing two languages provides a professional advantage.
Dr. Lopez praised Commissioner Cardona for extolling the benefits of students knowing two languages, “thus knowing more.”
She also cited Hispanic Heritage Month as a time to recognize the significant roles several other Latinos play in the education arena.
“Daisy Cocco De Filippis, president of Naugatuck Valley Community College, has increased Latino enrollment at her college from 12 percent to a current 30 percent. The college is now classified as Hispanic Serving Institution, Dr. Lopez said.
At Eastern Connecticut State under Dr. Nunez, she said, has been recognized as one of the top schools in graduating Latinos and also enrolls a number of Dreamers (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) students funded by Dream U.S.
Zulma Toro, Dr. Lopez said, provided scholarships after Hurricane Maria to students from ravaged Puerto Rico so they could complete college.
Although progress has been slow in some areas of concern, Lopez is confident the situation will improve. “I believe there is a will to ensure all students do better and reach their potential.”
Furthermore, the Latino educator stated, “I am optimistic because we are disaggregating data and seeing the evidence that some districts have better results, therefore they can share best practices.”
For example, CCSU, under Dr. Toro, has reached into the community to prepare under-served populations including Hispanics, for college and particularly to cultivate an interest in the STEM disciplines, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
This year’s incoming class at the New Britain campus has set a record for diversity, with 38 percent being people of color, exclusive of international students. Moreover, 19.6 percent of new students are Hispanic, the highest representation ever for the four-year state university.
Publisher’s Note: Watch for Hispanic Heritage Month (9/15 – 10/15) special reports focused on community, arts & culture, education, economy, and politics.