When local superintendents had a problem, they knew they could call Miguel Cardona. Or he would call them.
Danbury-area school chiefs praised Cardona — President Joe Biden’s pick for U.S. secretary of education — for his job as Connecticut’s education commissioner and said his background as a public school teacher and former English language learner will benefit students.
“It’s a loss for our state,” New Fairfield Superintendent Pat Cosentino said. “But I’m very hopeful that he is going to have really positive impact on our country and our education systems. And I think that gives us a lot of hope.”
Their relationships with him may be a plus for their districts, too.
“It will be really helpful to us that the secretary of education knows us here in Newtown, understands what we’ve been through and can speak directly to that,” Superintendent Lorrie Rodrigue said. “It’s more comforting to us knowing that someone at that level understands who we are, and the issues that we’ve faced, and what would be important to us moving forward as a district and a community.”
Cardona is a former Meriden elementary school teacher and principal who learned English at school and is of Puerto Rican descent.
That perspective will be crucial as schools grapple with remote learning and how to ensure an equitable education for students from minority backgrounds, superintendents said.
“It’s important to have someone who is a secretary of education who is an educator, so that they understand all of the challenges,” Cosentino said.
One of Biden’s goals is to open most kindergarten through eighth-grade schools within his first 100 days in office while dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s something Cardona has experienced in Connecticut, where the governor said Thursday that about half of students have the option of in-person learning
“He’s probably learned a lot about what is it going to take to keep kids in school,” Bethel Superintendent Christine Carver said. “Especially during this pandemic … he’s been very open-minded in terms of really listening to what the problems are. It’s not just like, ‘This is what you’re going to do.’ It’s, ‘How can we support you in doing that?’”
Teachers in the highest offices
Cardona is a contrast from Betsy DeVos, who was education secretary for the last four years under former president Donald Trump. DeVos had been widely criticized because she had never worked in public education nor attended public schools.
“There will be a real benefit to having the K-12 public education lens at the table,” said Rydell Harrison, superintendent for Easton, Redding and Region 9. “That was a piece that was missing.”
Cardona won’t have to learn about what it’s like to work in a public school because he’s done it, Rodrigue said
“If you’re going to take on a role like the secretary of education, then it just is so beneficial to have been in the trenches with teachers and leaders and really understand the nuances of education and the challenges our classroom teachers and principals and central office employees face every day,” she said.
But at least two people in the White House will “get it,” Harrison said.
Jill Biden plans to continue to teach at a community college while serving as first lady.
“That’s wonderful,” Cosentino said. “It shows her desire to continue to be a service to kids. My gosh, what a great role model for everybody. We’re all really thrilled about that.”
This will further support Cardona’s work, Carver said.
“It’s only going to enhance the understanding of what the needs are, in terms of educating and public education,” she said.
When nominating Cardona, Biden said the former teacher would fight for a “better, fairer, more successful education system” and “eliminate longstanding inequities and close racial and socio-economic opportunity gaps.”
That’s what he has worked to do in Connecticut, local educators said.
“He sees the importance of equity and making sure that the achievement and opportunity gaps are addressed so that every child has a fair share of being successful,” Cosentino said.
Especially during the pandemic, Cardona has backed providing resources to schools to support low-income, minority families, she said.
“Those kids are falling behind,” Cosentino said. “We see that as superintendents, and he is very aware of that.”
Connecticut is the first state in the country to require all high schools to offer courses on African American, Black, Puerto Rican and Latino studies.
Cardona could push for this nationwide, Harrison said.
“It’s not so much just about the courses, but it’s about the representation of students, being able to see themselves in the curriculum,” he said. “That’s not just a local or statewide focus, but I think that it could be and should be a national focus on education.”
Superintendents said Cardona communicated with them well, either through virtual calls with school chiefs across the state or reaching out individually when districts had concerns.
“Through his leadership, it’s very transparent that his intent is to support districts in our work,” said Carver, who worked closely with Cardona as a board member on the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.
Rodrigue described him as a good listener, but also intuitive.
“He’s really an outstanding educator and someone who has a high level of integrity and compassion and a depth of understanding about so many of the critical issues we all face as teachers and leaders,” she said. “He is very down to earth.”
Cosentino said he has led with a “kids first” mantra.
“He understands the importance of really supporting families and children from a very early age and the dividends that pays as you move forward,” she said.
Her one piece of advice is that he focuses on vaccinating school staff quickly.
“They are front-line workers and they have done an enormous job to keep our kids in school,” Cosentino said.
Despite the relationship they have formed with him, local superintendents said they don’t expect to call Cardona directly about policy or issues. They said they recognized he’ll be busy. But they may email him.
Rodrigue said she sent Cardona a note of congratulations about a week ago.
“He responded back right away,” she said. “That’s the kind of gentleman he is.”
“How he has supported us here is going to benefit, not just us here in Connecticut, but everyone across the nation,” Rodrigue added. “His heart is in the right place.”