Ahead of a Super Bowl back in the early 1980s, Gary O’Neil, a Connecticut grade-school art teacher, had a surefire class project to bond with a roomful of kids: Draw pro-football player faces with helmets on them and clothespin the paper cutouts to the window blinds. Scissors and crayons in hand, students engaged with the teacher in ways that for many – including Miguel Cardona – had lifelong reverberations.
“Miguel was always eager to learn,” says Mr. O’Neil, who met Dr. Cardona, whom the full Senate was scheduled to vote on Monday as secretary of education, as a second-grader in the diverse Meriden Public Schools system.
Miguel not only learned to love art in a way that would ultimately lead him into a teaching career, but he learned from Mr. O’Neil how a man of color – as an African American and Native American – could command a classroom.
“I remember looking up and thinking, ‘I want to be like him,’” Dr. Cardona told a local Connecticut paper.
Now Dr. Cardona is inspiring students, says Mr. O’Neil, whose middle school art class watched the Senate confirmation hearing on their laptops last month as they colored designs inspired by indigenous Panamanian textiles.
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Expected to be confirmed as the 12th U.S. secretary of education on March 1, Dr. Cardona rose through a public school system where he eventually returned to pay it forward – as teacher, principal, assistant superintendent, and Connecticut state education commissioner. He built a reputation along the way as an inclusive leader who remembers his roots – a unifier whose leadership, colleagues say, lies in his profound ability to collaborate, juggling competing views like he used to juggle worlds as a native Spanish-speaker in mostly white Meriden.
Education secretaries may not run schools directly, but they can set a tone. And, steering clear of an ideological divide within the Democratic party, the Biden administration choice of Dr. Cardona as a conciliatory tone-setter was a smart move, says Jonathan Zimmerman, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. A teachers union leader or someone aligned with the pro-charter Democrats for Education Reform, he says, “would have been a sort of prima facie statement that we’re going with one side or the other.”
In an era of polarization, he adds, “we need our schools to be consensus-builders. … Our schools are the only public institution – the only one – that has the explicit goal of making citizens.”
Perhaps the top White House education priority at the moment is reopening schools – defined as most K-8 schools offering at least one day of in-person instruction a week by May. There is bipartisan support for reopening school buildings shuttered by the pandemic, but how to do it will be an early challenge for the secretary. The Education Department noted via email that reopening decisions are made at the state and local levels. And that process is a familiar one to Dr. Cardona, who as state education commissioner successfully maneuvered through the politics of reopening Connecticut schools to in-person last fall.
“For far too many of our students, this year has piled on crisis after crisis,” he said at his Senate confirmation hearing. “As a parent and as an educator, I’ve lived those challenges alongside millions of families.”
Dr. Cardona may play an important role in granting states flexibility in how they proceed with federally mandated standardized tests this year, along with other accountability requirements.
“The past four years, state and local leaders have been asking for federal guidance, asking for support, asking for technical assistance, and even an exchange of ideas on how to do the right thing for their students,” says Denise Forte, a former Obama administration official, now a senior vice president for partnership and engagement at the nonprofit Education Trust. That kind of partnership “has been missing,” she says.
“Did you see about Miguel?”
The nomination news palpably swelled local Meriden pride, says Dr. Cardona’s childhood friend Genaro Carrero Jr. At the grocery store, he says, “it’s the first thing that comes out: Did you see about Miguel?”
“Mikey” Cardona was a smart, funny kid who “pretty much kept his nose clean,” says Mr. Carrero, who spent countless Sundays alongside him when they were altar boys in oversize white robes, at times suppressing giggles during Mass.
Dr. Cardona’s parents and grandparents were among hundreds of thousands who migrated from the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico to the mainland in the decades following World War II. He says his parents raised him to revere hard work, community service, and education during his childhood in public housing.
“While we didn’t always have a lot of material possessions, I was born rich,” he said at his confirmation hearing.
Those humble beginnings and his Catholic faith informed an impulse to serve others, says Mr. Carrero, who works in construction as a project manager. “You appreciate everything you’ve achieved, obtained, and you try not to forget that,” he says.
Like the Carreros, the Cardonas are deeply committed to the Meriden Puerto Rican community. Pre-pandemic, the Carreros led Three Kings Day celebrations at a local library for four decades, at times arranging cameos by live camels. The Cardona family band contributed aguinaldos – Puerto Rican Christmas songs – with Dr. Cardona on the bongos. His father Hector, a former Meriden police officer with a handlebar mustache, chaired the annual Puerto Rican Festival.
Hungry to rise
Dr. Cardona’s ascent from a childhood in public housing and a technical high school to a Cabinet nominee models the mobility he fought to secure for his own students.
Despite his committed family and community connections, Dr. Cardona told the CT Mirror, “there were times throughout my youth that I think people had lower expectations than they should have. It just made me hungrier. ”
He studied automotive tech at H.C. Wilcox Technical High School, but spent hours in Linda Ransom’s art classroom. The retired teacher recalls he was a talented artist who loved to use the airbrush.
“He got along with all the kids, all his peers,” says Ms. Ransom, in Englewood, Florida. “He was gentle. … He just kind of took everything in.”
She remembers one heart-to-heart they had during his senior year, when he confided that he wrestled with a career in elementary versus art education: “I said, well, you’re male and you’re Hispanic, I think you would have a bigger impact on the children if you went into elementary education.”
That same year, he painted a mural of five figures with different skin tones beneath the words: “In America, There is Only One Race … The Human Race.” Ms. Ransom arranged for its display at a musical event in another high school.
Her support and that mural were formative. “I felt so empowered,” Dr. Cardona recalled in an interview with The Middletown Press. “The specific message was, it’s not only art, but also a way to develop as a person.”
As a first-generation college graduate, Dr. Cardona returned from Central Connecticut State University with a bachelor’s in education to the school system that reared him.
He decided against a career in bilingual education, he told the CT Mirror, because “I felt it was important non-Latino students saw a Latino in a position as a teacher.”
As a fourth-grade teacher, each morning he gathered his students around a teal rug for a chat about whatever was on their minds.
His former pupils recall how he championed their budding interests, like Ms. Ransom had for him. He coaxed one music-loving student to sing “Believe” by Cher before the whole class, reported NPR. As principal one winter, he had fifth-grader Anthony Kane and a classmate serenade schoolgoers on an upright piano in the morning as they entered the building. Mr. Kane says the encouragement meant more than practice playing Jingle Bells.
“It made me feel like I was doing something good at 10 years old,” says Mr. Kane, now 19, who is interested in an education career.
Dr. Cardona joined Hanover Elementary School as a principal before he turned 30. Three of 4 students identify as nonwhite in the district, and around the same share qualify for free or low-cost meals.
When Hanover began to gain more Latino and low-income students, the principal warmly welcomed families of color. Dr. Cardona was “always asking: Is everything OK? Do you have any questions about anything?” one former Hanover parent whose children were among the first Black students at the school told Chalkbeat.
During his time at Hanover, he also co-chaired a task force on student achievement gaps while juggling study for advanced degrees at the University of Connecticut Neag School of Education.
“He knew everybody”
In a small conference room at Dr. Cardona’s 2011 dissertation defense, Robert Villanova blinked back tears. The University of Connecticut professor remembers other guests were moved, too, by how Dr. Cardona personalized his presentation. Beyond sharing his findings on how educators could better narrow achievement gaps through a series of slides, Dr. Cardona recalled his own history as a young Latino raised in public housing.
“He described where his commitment to equity came from,” says Dr. Villanova.
Impressed by the principal’s leadership, Meriden Superintendent Mark Benigni promoted Dr. Cardona in 2013 to oversee state-mandated reforms to teacher evaluations.
It was through this committee that Jan Hochadel, Connecticut chapter president of American Federation of Teachers, had her first respectful brush with him. She appreciated how he saw teacher evaluations not as punitive, but “a way of helping teachers, improving their pedagogy, improving student learning outcomes.”
The district again promoted Dr. Cardona in 2015 to assistant superintendent, where he and Dr. Benigni oversaw a range of “student-centered” initiatives, including increased access to digital devices and recruiting more bilingual staff. Dr. Cardona impressed colleagues with his relationship-building skills, like when he took Evelyn Robles-Rivas on tours of the schools as a newcomer to the central office.
“It was amazing to see him walking into the building and seeing him calling students by their name,” says Dr. Robles-Rivas, supervisor of language and community partnerships. “He knew everybody.”
“We will need to work together”
Two decades after Dr. Cardona bought crayons for his first classroom, in 2019, Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont named him the first Latino education commissioner of Connecticut. Half a year later, the pandemic sent education into a tailspin.
As he pushed for, but didn’t mandate, the reopening of schools, observers say he maneuvered pushback diplomatically. When he outlined reopening guidance this past summer, he communicated in weekly virtual meetings with teachers union leaders like Ms. Hochadel.
“When you talk about an open-door policy, he truly, truly had that,” she says. “It’s not that we always agreed, but that communication really just built a respectful relationship.”
In fact, Dr. Cardona shared reopening guidance with her and another union before it went public. In turn, she forwarded him a preview of a PR statement that challenged the plan.
“I don’t [want] you to be blindsided. … my educators are very upset,” Ms. Hochadel wrote to Dr. Cardona in an email, part of public records obtained by the Yankee Institute for Public Policy.
He thanked her and replied: “We will need to work together.”
Most Connecticut public school districts have since reopened fully in person: Only 6% remain fully remote.
Disagreements aside, Ms. Hochadel sees Dr. Cardona as a capable Cabinet member who will promote conversation over conflict.
“He’s brilliant, he’s qualified, and he’s tested,” President Joe Biden described Dr. Cardona as he announced the nomination in December.
His nomination was “notable,” says Lindsey Burke, director of the conservative Heritage Foundation Center for Education Policy, “because there’s not a whole lot of information” about him. His hearing remarks, she says, “did acknowledge that there is value in [school] choice.”
Student loan debt and civil rights issues also loom on the horizon. But, no matter the challenge, says his former boss, Dr. Cardona will lead as a uniter.
“You’re not going to have someone who’s going to be deterred by a problem, by the pandemic, by a disagreement with a union,” says Superintendent Benigni. Instead, he’s “going to huddle the troops and say: All right, let’s work on this together.”
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