MERIDEN — Raquel Forte’s first goal before stepping into the classroom each day was simple: to make sure her students loved coming to school.
Whether it was at Casimir Pulaski Elementary School, where Forte’s teaching career began 27 years ago, or later at Hanover or Roger Sherman elementary schools, Forte brought that same approach for the hundreds of fifth-grade students she taught through the years, according to colleagues and family.
Forte died on Nov. 9, at the age of 49, several months after she was diagnosed with cancer. She is survived by her husband William Hester and their three children, Bryson, Alexis and Cole, her mother Sandra Conway, and Forte’s three siblings.
She naturally gravitated toward teaching and excelled at it, recalled her family and colleagues. The way she approached teaching went beyond strict adherence to a prescribed curriculum.
“For Raquel, this was a basic guideline for what needed to be taught,” William Hester wrote. “Like most good, caring teachers, she spent countless hours at night and on weekends creating new ways of presenting the material to students that would make it fun, entertaining and memorable for the students. Her belief was if you could take the same material, make it more engaging and memorable and the kids liked coming to school and you got great results, it was a win-win situation all around.”
Hester described his wife as “strong, feisty and passionate.”
“She would advocate for what she believed in, what her heart told her was right and not necessarily for what the procedure or protocol was,” Hester wrote.
The family received an outpouring of community support from former colleagues, former students and their families and city leaders. The writer of one message his family received described Forte as having been “a loveable thorn,” Hester recalled. That statement struck a chord.
“She had a huge, generous outgoing heart, but cross her family, friends or her students and you would know,” Hester wrote.
Forte was born in Meriden the day before Halloween in 1972. She began teaching at Pulaski in the fall of 1994. Soon after, she found her calling: teaching fifth grade.
She held high expectations and recognized each student entered her classroom having had varying levels of success and some with more needs than others, according to colleagues, former students and family members.
Even though she impacted the lives of hundreds of students and their families throughout her decades teaching,
Forte never sought accolades or the spotlight — preferring those things be focused on her students, according to colleagues and family.
Cara Forbotnick was one of those students. Forbotnick still cherishes the book Forte — her favorite teacher — gave her on her last day of fifth grade at Pulaski more than 20 years ago.
It is called “The Music of Dolphins.” Forte wrote an inscription in red ink saying she enjoyed having Forbotnick as a student in her class. Forte wrote that she was proud of the academic strides her student had made throughout that year.
The message has stayed with Forbotnick ever since.
Forbotnick, like numerous others, was surprised to learn of Forte’s passing. Now she has formed a book drive on Amazon.com in memory of her favorite teacher.
“She was strong-willed, yet loving and caring, and she’s a great advocate,” Forbotnick said, explaining even though it had been more than two decades since she was a student in Forte’s classroom, the two stayed close. They had children who were the same age.
“She had an energy about her,” Forbotnick said.‘Fierce advocacy’
Advocate is a word others would use to describe Forte as well, including U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.
Forte was a fifth grade teacher at Hanover School during Cardona’s tenure as the school’s principal.
Cardona, reached by phone Wednesday, described Forte’s classroom as having a strong sense of community that was tight-knit like a family. Cardona said he admired Forte’s “fierce advocacy for her students.” It was unapologetic.
He said Forte “really took the time to deeply understand her students and their families…. She saw the beauty in all children and she saw their gifts — and she brought those out.”
“[S]he did everything not only to help them grow, but get them whatever support they needed for them to be successful,” Cardona said, adding, “that level of advocacy for her students is something that really resonated with me and helped me as I continued in my career.”
Teaching wasn’t a job for Forte. It was a calling, Cardona said.
Raquel Forte, seen in this undated photo at Hanover Elementary School, with a former student and neighbor, Nikhil Tailor, along with her children, Alexis, Bryson and Cole. | Contributed
Forte followed in the footsteps of Conway, her mother, in becoming a teacher. In fact, when Conway was hired to become a preschool teacher at Thomas Hooker Elementary School, Forte helped her mother set up the classroom, Conway recalled.
It sparked an early interest in teaching. Forte, who had degrees in elementary education and in special education, would gravitate toward teaching the older children. The experience in special education helped Forte acquire a special empathy and patience to tailor her teaching toward each student’s individual needs. It often involved one-on-one interaction.
“She absolutely loved her job. She always went the extra mile,” Conway said. “...She was firm but very caring, but also did alternatives to the curriculum.”
Forte’s role as a teacher didn’t end when the dismissal bell rang. Forte was an active member of the Meriden Federation of Teachers union. She also was active in other initiatives, like Project Excel, which seeks to publicly honor students for their hard work and achievements.
Philip Rieth was a new teacher, in his first year, when he met Forte. Rieth had an empty classroom and the start of school was a few days away. Forte quickly imparted advice.
For Rieth, who recently retired as a teacher at Hanover, teaching was a second career. So Forte was a source of inspiration.Connected with students
Kara Parker, who got to know Forte when both were teachers at Pulaski, described her colleague as especially adept at motivating students to succeed. She excelled at communicating with her students one on one.
It didn’t matter whether students were shy or had special behavioral needs.
“She would find something they would be good at,” Parker said. “If they’re born leaders, she would put them at the head of a group. Would give them a role in the classroom.”
Meriden School Superintendent Mark D. Benigni described Forte as a great teacher, who “truly cared about her students and made a difference.” Benigni said he would personally miss Forte’s positive teaching approach.
Benigni described her classrooms as having been “safe places for exploration and learning.”
Richard Hamasian, another colleague of Forte’s, described a simple principle by which she abided: “The only way to reach the kids was to reach them where they were.
“Even though teachers say that’s what they do, Raquel lived it,” Hamasian said. “When you walked into that room, you really began to understand what teaching was…. She got down on the floor with a kid to help them if they were struggling with assignment. She believed they needed to feel comfortable and feel safe. As long they did that, felt comfortable and safe, they could learn a difficult concept.”
Irene Parisi, now chief academic officer for the State Department of Education, said what you saw with Forte was what you got. The two met in 1998.
“She was just very real. She did that on purpose,” Parisi said, adding that she understood her students well. “Some of their experiences were her experiences.
“Watching her interact with the kids, she just wanted to make each child be heard and understand that she heard them and she saw them. She paid attention to each child. She laughed and joked with them. And disciplined them when needed,” Parisi said. “She just really understood what it meant to be a teacher. She gave it her all.”