Miguel Cardona is the first Latino to be appointed state education commissioner. He was born in a Meriden housing project and, at 27, was the youngest school principal in Connecticut. Kathleen Megan / CT Mirror

When he was assistant superintendent of schools in Meriden, Miguel Cardona — the state’s new education commissioner — would take new teachers on a tour of the city’s neighborhoods.

He did it because he wanted the teachers to understand the diversity of their students — from those living in half-million dollar homes to those from housing projects.

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“The experience motivated the teachers to get to know their kids better,” Cardona said, “and be more actively involved in the community as new teachers.”

Born in a housing project in Meriden to parents who moved here as children from Puerto Rico, Cardona, 44, believes strongly in family and community as well as in the potential for each child to be successful.

The state’s first Latino commissioner of education recalls being the victim of stereotyping as he was growing up.

“For Latino children from communities that are below the threshold of poverty, you know you’re not typically thinking, the data doesn’t suggest that they’re going to be the next principal of the school … or state education commissioner,” Cardona said. “There were times throughout my youth that I think people had lower expectations than they should have. It just made me hungrier.”

“It’s not lost on me, the significance of being the grandson of a tobacco farmer who came here for a better life, who despite having a second grade education was able to raise his family and create that upward mobility cycle,” he added.

Cardona said the values instilled in him — “hard work, service to others, relationships first, treating people with respect” — have helped him achieve what can only be called a meteoric rise from his first teaching job in Meriden in 1998 to his appointment last month as state education commissioner. In between those two jobs, Cardona had the distinction of being the youngest principal in the state at age 28, was named principal of the year in 2012, and served as co-chairman of the Legislative Achievement Gap Task Force.

That’s all while getting married, parenting two children and earning a doctorate at UConn’s Neag School of Education.

“There were times throughout my youth that I think people had lower expectations than they should have. It just made me hungrier.”

Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona

Those who have worked closely with Cardona describe him as a hard worker, a good listener, and a collaborator who puts children and equity first.

Robert Villanova

“His leadership isn’t out there on his shirtsleeve,” said Robert Villanova, director of the executive leadership program at the Neag School of Education at UConn, who worked with Cardona when he was a doctoral student. “He’s not a General Patton. He’s not going to be up in front of people talking about [how] we’re going to charge together. He’s more collaborative. He has a ‘let’s do this’ orientation, but he delivers on it and that can be the surprising part. He knows how to engage people, bring people to the table, knowing you can’t solve any of these complex problems singularly. That’ll be his main theme.”

Richard Lemons, executive director of the Connecticut Center for School Change, was teaching at the Neag school when Cardona was a doctoral student and worked with him to improve instruction and leadership development in the Meriden school district.

“He is very passionate about serving children well, very passionate about making sure our systems of education do a better job of serving kids, families and communities that have long been marginalized, especially kids of color, kids of poverty,” Lemons said. “He believes in doing this work through people, not at people, not on top of people.”

Elsie Torres

Elsie Torres is now an assistant superintendent in East Hartford but worked for years with Cardona in Meriden. He is first and foremost  an advocate for children, she said.

“It’s a quality that is consistent across all his work, that kids first mindset,” Torres said. “It would always come down to the child: How are we impacting children? Children who were struggling, children who needed to be accelerated, children at the benchmark. How do we continue increasing the bar? That was his mindset.”

As commissioner, Cardona, heads an agency of about 300 people — not including employees in the technical high school system — and oversees a $3 billion budget, including all state and federal programs.

He takes the reins of the agency under a new governor, Ned Lamont, who so far hasn’t advocated for the sort of sweeping reforms proposed by his predecessor, former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

From the start of his first term, Malloy made it clear that education was a priority, pushing forward a raft of plans during his second year that proved highly controversial — from more rigorous academic goals known as the “Common Core State Standards” to a more challenging computerized standardized test known as the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium test. The plan to tie those test scores to teacher performance evaluations was so controversial that ultimately the state recommended against using  those scores to rate teachers.

Lemons said that part of the “dance” for the new commissioner will be to determine how much leeway the new governor will give him to move his own agenda.

Miguel Cardona Kathleen Megan / CT Mirror

Cardona probably first caught the collective eye of the state’s education and political leaders in 2010 when he was appointed co-chairman of a legislative task force studying the state’s intractable academic achievement gap between racial and socioeconomic groups. The other co-chair was then-Sen. Toni Harp, who is now the mayor of New Haven.

“He was very committed to collaborating with people to come up with a statewide solution around the lack of minority young people thriving in our overall urban school system,” Harp said recently. “He was committed to looking at not just the students and their families and the deficits that people cite as the reason for them not doing well. He was also willing to look at the overall system, particularly higher ed, to see whether teachers are trained appropriately to deal with so many of the problems that youngsters from urban areas bring to the classroom.”

She said that Lamont’s selection of Cardona is “a bold move… It felt to me like he really wants someone still young with the energy to actually move the districts across the state in a direction that ensures that our young people are prepared for the world they will inhabit, that requires you to have strong educational skills.”

“He was very committed to collaborating with people to come up with a statewide solution around the lack of minority young people thriving in our overall urban school system.”

New Haven Mayor Toni Harp

Cardona’s appointment as commissioner was not without controversy. About a week before he was offered the position, the Lamont administration offered it to Bloomfield Superintendent James Thompson — who had appeared to be the frontrunner for months. However, the administration’s negotiations with Thompson derailed over issues such as salary — the governor’s staff says — and the administration reversed course, offering the job to Cardona.

Cardona, who accepted a salary of $192,500, said he prefers to look forward.

“There were a lot of different things being said from the moment the governor took office or was elected …. I knew what I brought to the table. I put it out there and I waited for decisions to be made,” he said. “At this point, I want to focus on just making sure that, you know, we provide the students in Connecticut with the best opportunity to be successful.”

That opportunity almost certainly involves closing the achievement gap. In 2014, the task force Cardona led with Harp produced a master plan with dozens of recommendations to eliminate that gap, including the provision of full day, accredited preschool for all low-income children and an initiative to ensure that every Connecticut parent have at least a high school degree.

Optimistically, the report said that if the recommendations were followed, they would help close the achievement gap by 2020.

While acknowledging last week that the gap is far from closed, Cardona said many of the ideas in the report are being implemented or have influenced legislation. He noted that strides have been made in improving attendance and in school climate.

“We have made some gains [in the achievement gap] but we haven’t closed it,” Cardona said. “It’s still the top of the list for me. I want to make sure we have equitable outcomes throughout the state, regardless of where you live, regardless of background.”

He said he’ll be looking at improvements that can be made “inside the school house” such as ensuring that every child reads by grade three and that every district — even those without strong resources — are delivering a strong curriculum to students.

He said that he’ll also be looking “outside the school house” to consider other factors that contribute to a student’s readiness to learn.

“Housing insecurity, hunger, you know, economic instability,” he said. “So those are things that I’m super eager to work with sister agencies and partner with other commissioners.”

On the secondary school level, Cardona said he’d like to make dual enrollment — an approach that enables high school students to take courses on college campuses to earn college credits — “the rule and not the exception so that our kids have better access to college and to reduce some of that fear like I had of being the first time, first college-goer in the family.”

He’d also like to start a program that gives students high school credit for internships that could lead to future employment.

Cardona himself followed his eldest cousin to Wilcox Technical  High School where his concentration was in automotive studies, but he took college preparatory classes where, at times, he was the the only Latino student in the class.

He went on to Central Connecticut State University and initially considered majoring in art education — influenced by an excellent art teacher he had.

“Being around kids — it really serves almost like fuel for the soul.”

Miguel Cardona

“But I gravitated toward elementary education and once I started doing internship experiences in New Britain, it was sealed for me,” he said. “There’s so much promise in young children. There’s so much opportunity to help them shape what they want to be or what they want to do. You’re able to positively impact children, not only academically but also hopefully leave a little bit of an imprint on how they develop as people.”

“For me, the best part of my job in every position I’ve had has been visiting the classroom, especially the little kindergarten ones or the 4-year-old kids. Being around kids — it really serves almost like fuel for the soul.”

Cardona, who spoke only Spanish until entering school, said he considered going into bilingual education but “I felt it was important non-Latino students saw a Latino in a position as a teacher. So I chose to stay in the regular education setting.”

Cardona said that he would have been content as a fourth grade teacher, but the superintendent at the time saw potential in him and insisted that he pursue training to become a principal.

“It was the opportunity to increase my scope of influence and service to kids,” he said. “I went from 25 kids to 600 at Hanover Elementary School … Now it’s over 530,000, but it’s still service to kids.”

Cardona plans to meet with students on a regular basis so he can hear directly from them.

While in Meriden, Cardona said, he established dialogue sessions three or four times a year where students would come together and talk about what was working and what wasn’t.

“It’s not like we’re giving students a voice,” he said. “They have a voice — right? We’re just sometimes not designed to listen. You know when we talk about preparing students for the jobs of the future, it’s critical thinking, it’s self-advocacy. Well, let’s do that now.”

Kathleen Megan wrote for more than three decades for the Hartford Courant, covering education in recent years and winning many regional and national awards. She is now covering education and child welfare issues for the Mirror.

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7 Comments

  1. Well, it is too cliché to state “its all about the student”. It is a nice sound bite, but in reality, the Commissioner is a political appointment whose primary responsibility is to carry out the agenda of the Governor and the Legislators. His agenda is to make the elected look good. This can only be achieved by continuing to lower academic standards, pass new legislation that supports the lower standards for academic proficiency, and then preparing press releases touting how wonderful students are performing and graduation rates have increased for all ethic groups.

  2. Public Education in Connecticut is a disgrace and a catastrophe. Buckets of cash are poured on the fire of fixing it, but it just gets worse. Those of us who have the means have voted by either leaving Connecticut or putting our kids in private schools.

  3. Until the blight of multi generational single motherhood coupled with absentee fathers is reversed, no amount of money or “programs” will solve the lack of educational achievement in our poor urban communities.

    The CREC school system cost $3.2 billion to build magnificent schools which put the “rich” suburbs ones to shame. They cost $500 million/year to operate. They are half empty and their college readiness scores just went from a pathetic 56% in 2017 to an abysmal 51% in 2018.

    So a 300 person staff and a $3 billion budget is going to fix this? Not until there is a frank discussion about the real cause of underachievement which has nothing to do with schools or how they are supposed to be a substitute for a family.

    1. I agree that the education gap is not entirely a funding problem, but more of a problem families do not make education Priority #1. From my lens as an higher education educator for 38-years, the Commissioner should focus all of his efforts on the K-4 grades as this is the foundation that makes it possible to succeed in grades 5-8 and then 9-12. Before students can be promoted to 4th grade, students must be able to read, write and perform math at a proficiency 3rd grade level.

      1. My grandparents on both sides of my family came to the US, dirt poor and not speaking the language and were discriminated against. They lived in NYC slums – there was no welfare, no SNAP, no “programs”. Both of my parents went to college and graduate school. And many of their generation did the same.

        It isn’t about the money. If education isn’t the #1 priority in the family, the rest won’t matter.

      2. Unfortunately, if you listen to all the state education leaders and local Superintendents they cannot and will not say this. A blank check is not the answer. I know they have to be positive cheerleaders but if you listen to most of them speak, it’s really just hollow words. More Education Bureaucrats with little actual classroom experience are not the answer.

      3. No argument there. But with billions and billions spent and no appreciable progress, can we declare that throwing more money and “programs” doesn’t work?

        Time to have an honest conversation that multi billion dollar spending will and cannot continue until parents take responsibility for their children and their education.

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