Coral 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.
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.
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.”
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.