Diversity — Middletown’s greatest weapon to close the opportunity gap

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U.S. Department of 'Education photo

I was born and raised in Connecticut by my mother, a woman who was a strong advocate for my education. Looking back, I have no idea how she was able to be such a fierce and tireless champion of my education, while working incredibly hard as a single parent to provide for her only child. Meeting with my teachers on a daily basis and demanding more rigorous coursework to ensure I was prepared for college. Forcing school administrators to see past their own lowered expectations because of my race. Molding me into an avid (now, lifelong) reader. As a kid, my mother’s advocacy was something I took for granted until many years later in my academic and professional career.

I grew up attending a parochial school before transitioning to a public high school in my freshman year. In the entirety of my primary education, I was never taught by a person of color. My stark reality was being one of a mere handful of minorities in each of my schools. I grew up acutely aware of this racial disparity, and the resulting implicit biases I faced because of the color of my skin.

This experience is the foundation of my career in education. I didn’t want a kid like me – especially one without his or her own advocate – to be treated with the same low expectations. To look to teachers as role models, but never see anyone who looked like them in positions of influence to emulate. Driven by a desire to ensure that all children have access to a high-quality, equitable education, I persevered to work within a system I wanted to fundamentally change. First, as a fourth-grade teacher and today, as the superintendent of Middletown Public Schools.

To seek positive change for students, I constantly seek solutions for fundamental change. What is one approach to rectify this quandary from my personal educational experience? Increasing a diverse teacher and leader pipeline in our schools. A Brookings report points to the impact just one teacher of color can have on minority student performance, attendance and even discipline. This focus matters. I’ve seen this narrative throughout my career – including in Middletown. The demographic opportunity gap within school districts often exceeds the poverty opportunity gap. Our students – all students – need to see themselves reflected back in teachers, counselors, mentors, and leaders.

We can’t do it alone. Partnerships are critical to ensure that a pipeline of diverse teachers are tackling this gap, head-on. Teachers matter in a child’s achievement, and my own experience shows that diverse teachers really matter. That’s why I’m proud to deepen district collaborations with national, innovative teacher preparation organizations like the Relay Graduate School of Education, which enables Middletown to tap into its rigorously trained diverse pool of teachers-in-residence. In last year’s Connecticut cohort, more than 60 percent of Relay students self-identified as people of color.

When Relay teachers enter classrooms, kids who look like me across Middletown will benefit from an experience I never had. That diversity is our greatest weapon and the greatest gift I can think of giving my students.

Michael T. Conner, Ed.D., is Superintendent of Middletown Public Schools in Connecticut. He is a former administrator in New Haven, Hartford, Windham and Norwalk and began his career as an elementary school teacher. He lives in Middletown with his wife and 3-year-old son.

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