Violet Jimenez Sims has advocated bilingual education reforms in many forums, including the state Capitol in Hartford. Now, she is ready to have a voice in the future of English language learning (ELL) and other education issues in her hometown by running for a seat on the New Britain Board of Education.
But before the Dominican Republic-born high school teacher can have a voice in shaping policies for a district where one out of every six students is an English Language Learner (ELL), she must first successfully navigate through the local Democratic primary as a non-endorsed candidate and finish in the top three out of the five candidates in this vote in order to run on the Democratic line in the November general election when five board members will be elected.
This is quite a quest for someone who says she is not a “political person” but is “passionate about education,” especially focusing on bilingual education.
The primary contest, with Sims and two of the Town Committee approved candidates boasting Latino connections, one by marriage, underscores how much New Britain’s Latino community, 37 percent of the population, has become involved in addressing one of its greatest concerns, public education.
“It is very important to have Hispanics on the Board of Education,” said John McNamara, the town committee chairman and Democratic candidate for mayor. Latinos account for 62 percent of the enrollment in the public school system and 79 percent of more than 1,700 ELL students. Over the last decade, several Hispanics have served on the Board of Education including Daisy Sanchez who is active in the Democratic caucus. Moreover, the board’s current president, Sharon Beloin Saavedra, a Democrat who is married to a Hispanic, Edward Saavedra, who also has served on the board and as an alderman.
What Sims, who has two daughters in a local school, brings to the table is first-hand knowledge of the challenges the urban district faces in bilingual education. She worked as an English and Spanish teacher at New Britain High School from 2007 to January 2014. She “loves her students and the community,” but she decided to move to Manchester High School last year to become a bilingual and instructional coach for her “own professional growth,” she said.
Among other things, Sims has expressed discontent at the teaching atmosphere under the current administration. l. “I didn’t feel like I had the opportunity to utilize my professional training, but rather was dictated what to do.”
For Violet Sims, one benefit of no longer working for the New Britain district is that she is now eligible to run for the school board, she said, and have an effective voice in the selection of a new superintendent of schools and a new principal for New Britain High School. In addition, she wants to foster greater collaboration with the community, parents and all the constituencies found in a city known for its diversity. After Spanish, the two most prevalent non-English first languages in the local schools are Polish and Arabic.
In electing to run without party endorsement, Sims teamed up with Aggie Kurzyna, a technology project manager who also has been vocal about the future of local education, after both were passed over by the New Britain’s Democratic Town Committee. They gathered more than 800 valid signatures, 629 were required, to force the primary contest.
The unendorsed duo has been placed on Row B of the ballot. Row A is occupied by Carlos Pina Jr., Nicole Rodriguez and Merrill Gay, all current members of the board and party regulars. Voters can vote for any three.
Pina is a retired state employee active in local Puerto Rican programs including the 65th U.S. Infantry Regiment Monument Committee. Rodriquez is a transitional education specialist with a master’s degree in counseling and is married to a Puerto Rican. Gay is the executive director of the CT Early Childhood Alliance.
“The Democrats have a wealth of good people who want to be on the board,” McNamara observed, and a half dozen had submitted their credentials and spoke at the party’s candidates’ meeting in June.
Kurzyna and Sims were “impressive,” the town chairman recalled, but he was supporting “Row A,” the endorsed slate. Several factors played into the “overwhelming” decision by party regulars to endorse the incumbents, the party chairman said. This included that committee members were more familiar with these candidates, plus they had worked for other candidates in the past.
While lacking political experience, Sims has extensive experience in campaigning for a cause. She has taken her message about the importance of a solid, community-related bilingual educational system in and outside of New Britain. She has testified at state legislative hearings, including one held by the state Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission, participated in local informational forums, set up and spoke at a regional conference held at Central Connecticut State University, written op-ed pieces and, she notes, “marched on Washington.”
During an odyssey which took Sims from the Dominican Republic to New York City and New Britain as a youngster who was “very literate in her first language,” and to eventually becoming a school board candidate, the route she charted was not initially toward becoming a teacher.
As a high school student at E.C. Goodwin Tech in New Britain, Sims learned hairdressing but also focused on the academic side and earned a full scholarship to the University of Connecticut where she majored in theater. This background has proved valuable, however, and she is teaching a course called Hair and Makeup for the Stage in the Performing Arts Academy at Manchester High School.
Sims was bitten by the teaching bug at her first job, working in the dean of students office at UConn. She was assigned to coordinate various events but she also had other duties that brought exposure to educational functions. Then, as a graduate student earning a master’s degree in education, she received some classroom experience in teaching freshman. “I liked doing that,” she recalled.
However, to become a teacher, Sims had the pursue the alternate route to certification, a rigorous, six-month process, which she completed in May 2007. She now holds a master’s degree in higher education, a certificate of advanced graduate studies and is pursuing her doctorate at the University of Bridgeport.
Her husband D’Andre Sims also left the New Britain system to teach at Manchester High School.
Sims was recognized early in her career as having the potential to make a difference in education. She was awarded the 2008 Alma Exley Scholarship through a program that annually awards “at least $5,000 to a student of color” preparing to become a teacher.
“She (Sims) is one of many Alma Exley Scholars who are having a positive impact in a variety ways,” said Woody Exley, who administers the program that is a memorial to his late wife’s career in education.
For now, Sims is hoping to influence the outcome of the school board election. Being bilingual could help her make inroads with New Britain’s large Spanish-speaking population, but admittedly more of a teacher and advocate than a politician, she finds that the best results are from working one-on-one, so that means spending a lot of time in the next couple weeks campaigning door-to-door.