Ortiz’s Parting Plea: Civility & Courage

Thomas Breen photoCoral Ortiz noticed “something fishy.” She noticed that adults around her were too “intimidated” to mention it. So she spoke up —  and stopped a speeding political locomotive in its tracks.

Ortiz reflected on that experience as she completed a two-year term as one the two first elected student members of the New Haven Board of Education. She attended her final meeting Monday night at the L.W. Beecher Museum School of Arts & Sciences on Jewell Street, showered with praise from board members from the mayor on down about her success on the board. She offered a parting challenge to her colleagues to communicate better.

In her two years, she brought issues to the fore like widespread problems with the guidance counselor system in New Haven’s schools and administrative confusion at Hillhouse High School.

Board member Che Dawson, who sat next to Ortiz, described how he had witnessed Ortiz transform over the past two years from a participant into a leader. “You’ve gone from a thermometer to a thermostat, so to speak,” he said. “Meaning that, when you came on the board, you reacted to what was going on. You felt it deeply. The change that occurred is that you set the temperature now. You let us know what young people are thinking, and what we should consider. You have become a real model for what folks on this board are supposed to do.”

Tuesday morning, the Hillhouse High valedictorian —  who begins attending Yale in the fall; she turned down Harvard —  reflected during an interview on WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven” program on how she found her voice on the Board of Ed. Even when that meant taking on an idea too hot for the adults to tackle.

The idea in question was the creation of a new charter school for boys of color.

“I came to a point where I knew what I believe in was stronger than my fear of offending … the adults in the room,” Ortiz said. “Once I got over that fear, I knew that I was ready to advocate for myself.”

”A Big Red Flag”

An outspoken politically influential minister, the Rev. Boise Kimber, who regularly speaks at length at board meetings and berates officials, had proposed creating the new charter school. He planned to have a paying position there.  (Click here for a full story and radio interview with Kimber making his case for the school.)  With the active stewardship of the Harp administration —  which had found a way to keep Kimber from causing trouble for its agenda at the Board of Ed —  the school was speeding toward approval with little debate.

Until Ortiz decided to attend a February Board of Ed magnet school fair, just to see what they’re like.

She noticed that the Board of Ed had a booth for kids to sign up for the new charter school. Even though the Board of Ed had yet to debate, let alone approve, it. Ortiz knew that. Because she was a member of the board.

Ortiz called the magnet school discovery “a big red flag.”

“I saw them advertising a school when it was only proposed as an idea. That seemed very, very sneaky to me and very upsetting,” she recalled. “The official Board of Ed! It was unbelievable.”

When she got home, she called up the Board of Ed website. She was startled to find the school already advertised there as open for business come the fall.

“I was like, “There is something really fishy going on here.’”

Kimber had brought 15 supporters to an earlier board meeting, on Jan. 30, to help push through the school’s approval. That’s when Ortiz first spoke up. She noted that the Board of Ed no longer knew if it had money for a new building for Creed, an alternative high school currently operating from temporary quarters in North Haven. Other board members lined up behind Kimber, though, and the project still seemed destined for a speedy approval.

Then came the magnet fair visit. Ortiz raised it at the Feb. 22 Board of Ed meeting, at which Kimber — despite his lack of standing as technically a member of the public, not a board member —  urged the board to approve a resolution at the meeting allowing his school to proceed.

“What’s the policy behind a school advertising at a magnet resource” fair? she asked her colleagues.

Suddenly even board members who’d supported Kimber’s proposal had to agree publicly with Ortiz’s concerns. The proposal was suddenly sidetracked. Despite repeated efforts by Kimber at future meetings —  including loud “public comment” section speeches in which he refused to abide by a three-minute limit and threatened retaliation against the board —  it never got back on track.

Ortiz said people later asked her how she found the courage to “stand up” to Kimber when the adult members of the board never had.

She said she never feared retaliation: “’It would be kind of crazy for him to come at me, a high schooler.”

“It was one of those ideas that just didn’t make sense at all. No one wanted to point that out,” she said.

“I try not to get involved politically with individuals in New Haven. … To me, people are people. I’m just going to say what I think. To me, it was a matter of: Does this make sense? Is this right? Both of those answers were no.” While she agreed with the impetus behind the proposal, she concluded that New Haven couldn’t afford another new school. She also thought it was too geared toward African-American students rather than Latino students as well. She recommended creating a program within an existing school to offer extra attention and help for boys of color.

A Revelation

Michelle Liu Photo

Ortiz called her two years on the board a political education. She arrived just as the board went from being fully appointed by the mayor to a hybrid, with two elected adult voting members, plus the two elected student members (who don’t get to vote).

She was startled to find the adults acting disrespectfully toward each other, more like kids, as one faction battled with another over removing Garth Harries as superintendent.

In June 2016, the board members went to group therapy with a consultant to learn how to get along. They continued yelling at each other —  leading Ortiz at one point to burst into tears.

“They’re yelling at each other or throwing … shade or derogatory comments towards each other,” she recalled. “Then they’re telling students to behave in a certain manner. I don’t think it’s beneficial to the students.”

Before joining the board, she used to think that “loudest person in the room is the strongest person in the room.” She came to conclude the opposite.

She singled out former board member Michael Nast as an example. “He was so quiet. You wouldn’t really expect him to be such an effective leader. He was the most effective person. When he said something, it was so insightful. And it was because he was always actively listening. That’s something I have learned, to actively listen.”

Like Tubman, Sotomayor

In parting remarks at Monday night’s board meeting, Ortiz basically urged the adults to act more like Nast in how they communicate with each other. And she urged them to communicate better with students and others in the school system they oversee. (She also blasted policymakers who underfund schools, teachers who fail to believe in kids, and members of the public who stereotype Hillhouse in her smoking valedictory speech last week. Click on the video to watch.)

“We have so many opportunities for students, but a lot of the time, they don’t hear about them,” Ortiz told the board Monday night. “We have so many opportunities for people to engage with us, but they don’t participate in them. Working on effectively communicating with our partners is really important.”

“And equity,” she continued. “Making sure that every student has the same opportunity for success, whether or not their parents are super involved, regardless of their background. I think that’s also super important. I want to end where I started, by reminding everyone that these two things [communication and equity] still need a lot of work.”

One by one, each member of the board took a few minutes to thank Coral for serving, to praise her for her unique talents, and to celebrate her as an example of the tremendous potential for academic achievement that the New Haven public school system can still provide.

Mayor Toni Harp presented Ortiz with a distinguished service award in recognition of her contributions both to New Haven’s Board of Ed and to the state’s Board of Ed, where she served as one of two student members.

“I absolutely know that you will benefit everyone whose life you touch,” she told Ortiz. “Thank you very much for wanting to do this work. I know that it wasn’t easy. This is a tough board. You hung in there with us. We learned from you, and I hope you learned from us.”

Board member Ed Joyner offered similar praise, putting Ortiz in line with some of the 20th century’s civil tights icons. “I was at Hillhouse for graduation,” Joyner said, “and Coral gave a speech that evoked memories of Barbara Jordan, Harriet Tubman, Sonia Sotomayor. She acknowledged her African and her Hispanic background, and it is very clear that the students at Hillhouse have tremendous respect and admiration for her.”

“Thank you,” he continued, “for proving to people that Hillhouse is a great school, and that anyone that wants a good education can get it there despite the problems that it has.”

Ortiz will be replaced on the board by Hillhouse rising junior Makayla Dawkins. The other student member of the BOE is Hyde School’s Jacob Spell.

She was asked on Tuesday’s radio show if she has any advice for Dawson and Spell.

“Don’t be intimidated by adults,” she responded. “I had to get over the feeling of intimidation. Just advocate. Just say what you believe in. There really is no worst-case scenario; you’re a high schooler.”

Then she went to meet her friend to see a movie. Something she hadn’t had much time to do while devoting the past two years to completing high school and serving as an active member of the city’s Board of Education.

 

Click on or download the above audio file to hear the full interview with Coral Ortiz on WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven” program, including discussion of the future of Creed, the quality fo education at Hillhouse, how big schools should be, and how change comes about.

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posted by: New Haven Nuisance on June 27, 2017  2:34pm

There is absolutely no reason whatsoever for student Board of Education members to not be full voting members of the board. Make students full voting board members now.

posted by: markcbm on June 27, 2017  2:39pm

Ortiz for mayor!

posted by: Latina on June 27, 2017  3:32pm

Congratulations to this student who was persistent and truly fought for students in New Haven. She really wanted to do what was right for students . We wish her the best of luck! Hoping to read about her and Yale. Her valedictorian speech was truthful and insightful. It is on NHPS.net under news or youtube- under Coral Ortiz.  Great job Ms. Ortiz!!

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on June 27, 2017  3:39pm

Ortiz said people later asked her how she found the courage to “stand up” to Kimber when the adult members of the board never had.She said she never feared retaliation: “’It would be kind of crazy for him to come at me, a high schooler.

Tengo en corazon..Means I have Heart.I have been following her for a long time.She is cut from the Cloth the following

The Young Lords

Denise Oliver-Velez

“I was in the Young Lords, and one of the points in the original program was ‘Revolutionary Machismo’. Machismo is reactionary, so you can’t have revolutionary machismo. We women weren’t having it. So we made a very different kind of statement. ‘We want equality for women. Down with machismo and male chauvinism

http://www.shesbeautifulwhenshesangry.com/denise-oliver-velez/

Pedro Albizu Campos

Malcolm X

Malcolm X-No Sell Out

https://youtu.be/MCWlGH-MeMU

In fact Sell out Latino Judas Goat Leaders need to follow her Lead which is No sell out like they have been doing.

posted by: 1644 on June 27, 2017  4:04pm

Mark:  She is staying in New Haven for undergrad, so she should be able to remain in local politics.  There is no reason she could not continue to serve the city in a part-time position such as Alder or BoE member. She would be a great addition to either body.  (She’d be a great mayor, too, but that is a full-time job, or at least it is supposed to be.)

posted by: Brutus2011 on June 27, 2017  4:57pm

Interesting point of view.

I have often thought that our schools are more for the adults than for the kids.

Perhaps Ms. Ortiz could continue to advocate for students while at Yale.

Right on!

posted by: Knowledgeispower on June 27, 2017  5:00pm

I’m proud to have someone (regardless of age) advocating on the behalf of my children and taking initiatives to improve their future. These responsibilities are embodied in leadership and Coral Ortiz has redefined what that looks like to us.

posted by: robn on June 27, 2017  5:02pm

Voted YES on the poll..,solely on the basis of our dear student rep rolling the charter school prospectus up into a very tight wad and then proceeding to jam it up Reverend Moneybuck’s keister. good for her.

posted by: Thomas Alfred Paine on June 27, 2017  5:11pm

Coral Ortiz was the proverbial David who took down the pseudo-Goliath, Boise Kimber. She sounded an alarm, exposing the scheme of Garth Harries and Kimber, which was wholeheartedly supported by Mayor Toni Harp, to give Kimber, a separate school for Black boys, a school that he publicly admitted he intended to profit from financially. This school had not been proposed, endorsed, or voted on by BOE members, YET it appeared on the NHPS website, in the School Choice/ magnet school booklet, and had a recruiting booth at the magnet school fair. ALL that disappeared within days of Coral Ortiz’s blockbusting revelation, which was a shocking surprise to several Board members!
Mayor Harp tried to orchestrate passage of this proposal. There was a deceptive video presented. Kimber named the school. She expected support from Daisy Gonzales and Frank Redente, her new appointee. She got her liaison, Jason Bartlett, to assist Kimber to attempt to garner public support, even bringing a group of administrators and students from a New York boys’ charter school, the model for the Kimber academy, to the BOE meeting to convince members to accept the proposal.
BOE members ultimately had no confidence in Kimber or his proposal, money was tight, Creed School needed attention. The majority of the BOE voted it down with the support of BOTH student members!  Harp was in shock. Both Kimber and Harp suffered a humiliating defeat primarily because of Coral’s expose!
Kimber the Bombastic Baptist Bully attempted to intimidate the BOE members, but none feared him. It is incorrect to state that adult BOE members “never’’ stood up to Kimber. The controversial cleric was frequently publicly rebuked for his disrespectful, disruptive behavior at BOE meetings. Many members did question the wisdom of this school, when there are currently schools and programs in the district which address the needs and concerns of troubled youth of every race and gender.
Coral ignited a spark that changed NHPS history!

posted by: SLP on June 27, 2017  5:59pm

Don’t even know Coral Ortiz and I’m so proud of her. I was skeptical of the role of students on the BoE and Ms.Ortiz has proven many times over that I was wrong. Bravo and best of luck to her at Yale. Please stay involved in NHPS if you can!

posted by: Westville voter on June 27, 2017  8:27pm

It’s sad that at the NHBOE the child is the only adult in the room. I hope that Ms. Ortiz will hold on to her honest idealism, even when it is out of sync with those around her. A message to the BOE: The student has become your teacher. Learn something from her.

posted by: Nadine H on June 27, 2017  8:33pm

Emerging community leader; continue your student advocacy at Yale and stay involved in city happenings for the good of the city!

posted by: Brian L. Jenkins on June 27, 2017  11:21pm

I was honored to be in attendance to personally hear the plethora of encomium speeches delivered by the board members who witnessed firsthand for two years the dynamic leadership of this young woman.

It is my hope that the advice she left with the remaining board members will resonate. 

The word reticent does in no way describe Ms. Ortiz at all.  I would hope that she seriously considers running for public office someday in the near future.

Congratulations to her and her parents for raising such a wonderful young woman.

posted by: Latina on June 27, 2017  11:34pm

I am so glad to see first latina student on the New Haven and State board. We , the latino community, are super proud of Ms. Ortiz and wish her the best. It would be amazing that Harp appoints her to the board at some point. For sure Coral is a keeper and speaks the truth. Hoping to see her in the CT senate , or as an alder some time for our city. She got my vote !! Coral please continue to help our children, and fight for what is right and blessings will come upon your life!! Btw, hear her validectorian speech on http://www.nhps.net - look at news
Or search YouTube- Coral Ortiz Validictorian speech- Hillhouse. Amazing speech and truthful- WOW!!
Suerte Coral- Orgullo boricua!
Viva Puerto Rico!

posted by: LookOut on June 28, 2017  9:34am

Impressive.

We need more leaders (on the BOA and Board of Alders) like this who are focused on doing things rights rather than building empires and serving the unions. 

I hope that we can find a way to keep Ms. Ortiz in New Haven for a long time.

posted by: GroveStreet on June 28, 2017  10:56am

When the students were first elected to the board, it was appalling to Garth Harries’ constant attempts to pull them to his side often through his long-gone minions. It was nice to see both Coral and Kimberly Sullivan break free of those attempts and become advocates for students.

Blowing up the unholy Kimber-Bartlett escapade erased any doubts about her wisdom and commitment. Let’s hope the students on the board now are wise, independent voices who advocate for students first.

Great job, Coral.

posted by: J R on June 28, 2017  11:59am

Ortiz has done a fantastic job.  It is a small footnote to the article, but I also think it’s great that she will be a student at Yale!

posted by: robn on June 28, 2017  5:28pm

F-ing grrl power! We love you coral! Good luck at University!

posted by: katayers on June 30, 2017  7:47am

What a great story to start my day!
There is hope for the future, and I have confidence that this impressive young will play a part in it.  Hopefully in or near New Haven!

posted by: Westville Neighbor on June 30, 2017  8:26am

Coral you are an incredible leader. You have already accomplished an amazing amount and have proven to be someone who can give voice to the concerns that you, your peers and a lot of adults have. Stay strong, trust your gut and do not let any one silence you.

posted by: manofthepeople on June 30, 2017  11:44am

Incredibly impressed with her. It is astounding that she had the courage to stand up to someone like the reverend who works through social intimidation, blackmail, and “community” pressure.

I look forward to seeing more of her in the future -  I would donate to her mayoral campaign.