His mother had to pick up her overworked son early that day, but Cardona eventually felt that the Connecticut public school system was a place with great potential.
About four decades after entering kindergarten, Cardona sat in a makeshift office in his basement as state commissioner for education, facing another challenging challenge: rebuilding Connecticut schools for personal learning during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Like my first day of school, it also seemed impossible,” Cardona said in a recent speech.
Omicron adds frustration to families
“I understand the fatigue of these parents. It’s been two years and we thought it would be two weeks,” Cardona told CNN in a recent interview.
“We are all tired. We are tired of masks. But it was really clear to me that our schools not only need to open up, but also need to rethink and do better than they were before the pandemic,” he said.
But for many parents, those efforts were too late.
“Why didn’t every child in America have a test in their backpack when going home for the winter holidays?” asked Kerry Rodriguez, president of the National Union of Parents, a network of grassroots parents activists across the country.
The pandemic, she said, has intensified the group.
“We have witnessed the catastrophic failure of public education in our living rooms,” Rodriguez said.
Representatives of the National Union of Parents regularly cooperate with the Biden administration, but Rodriguez says she was sometimes disappointed by the lack of action.
“It was ambiguous,” she says of Cardona’s first year.
“While it is important to touch on the morale of teachers, I don’t think it has given the same support to parents and families, and frankly, to students who have literally held back the American public education system for the past two years,” Rodriguez said.
He walked in the teacher’s shoes
As a former educator, Cardona can relate to teachers.
He began his career as a fourth-grade teacher in Meriden, Connecticut, where his family moved from Puerto Rico, and he went to school. Cardona soon became director and then assistant foreman in the county. Now his two children are studying there.
Parts of his recent speech, in which he outlined his priorities for the year, spoke directly to teachers, calling them “heroic”.
“Moving forward, we need to make sure that educational jobs are the ones that educators don’t want to leave,” he added.
Cardona also presented the parents with an olive branch, emphasizing the importance of their voices being heard.
“Especially now, during the pandemic, the involvement of all parents in this process of recovery and elimination of disparities is not only important but also necessary,” he said.
Cardona contrasts sharply with her predecessor Betsy DeVos. Even to an activist to parents like Rodriguez, Cardona is a clear “improvement” over DeVos, a billionaire and longtime supporter of private schools who has clashed with teachers ’unions.
After he was nominated, Cardona immediately received the support of the country’s two largest teachers ’unions.
“I appreciate the secretary for asking for something important, and I do the same,” said Randy Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
“People trust that he sees the problem from all sides,” she said.
“And in such an imperative time we are in, with such toxicity, the fact that he has so much confidence is really very important,” she added.
A quick climb to the top of public education
Cardona’s ascent was swift as he built a reputation as a highly respected, compassionate educator in Meridian, a small town with a significant Latin American population and where many students come from low-income families.
In Meriden, he led the overhaul of the teacher assessment system, balancing the needs of students with staff and focusing on teachers’ unions and state requirements.
“I’m not sure that any role could prepare him for the one he is in now,” said Marc Benigni with a laugh. Benigni is the headmaster of Meriden, who hired Cardona to work at his headquarters.
“But he is always the same person, no matter the role. He is patient and works well with different counties and strong opposing views. He knows that not everyone will like every idea, but he brings people together knowing that we can find common ground. language, ”Benigni added.
After about two decades in the school district, Maiden Cardon was appointed Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont as Connecticut Education Commissioner in 2019. The start of the Covid-19 pandemic required him to collaborate with state leaders in education and health facilities. He initially urged Connecticut schools to open every day for personal learning, but eventually he left the decision on whether to open full-time in September 2020, to local areas.
“Somehow in that relatively short period of time, in the beginning of Kovid, he put Connecticut on the map – and before you know it, he’s a potential candidate for education minister,” said Robert Vilanova, a professor of education at the University of Connecticut. He is the director of the school’s executive leadership program, from which Cardona received a certificate in 2012.
“His aspirations are only pure,” said Vilanova, adding, “I think that while working as a commissioner to become the Minister of Education was his last thought.”
Using the bully’s pulpit
It is not good for Cardona to keep schools open. There is even more hard work ahead.
He has a long list of priorities for next year, such as expanding mental health support in schools and providing each child left behind during the pandemic with a teacher three days a week. He said he would like every high school student to participate in at least one extracurricular activity.
“Children can no longer suffer. They have suffered enough,” he said, sitting in his office in Washington, D.C., where a welcome poster made by students hung at the door.
But as secretary of education, he doesn’t have the authority to make the most of it happen, as it did when he worked locally. Decisions about staffing, curricula, and how to safely keep schools open are left to the states or local counties.
The department is now working to give districts advice on how to be transparent with parents about how money is used.
“We help create a story about what children need, based on what we see and hear,” Cardona said, acknowledging that much depends on local decision-makers.
“By and large, that’s how it’s designed and I think it works that way – but that doesn’t mean I won’t take the opportunity of sitting here to say what I know is best for kids based on that I hear what I knew, ”he said.