MERIDEN — Despite the racial and ethnic diversity of local students, the difference between the number of educators of color compared to students of color is drastic.
It’s something Orlando Valentin Jr., Hanover Elementary School’s new assistant principal, hopes to change.
About 9% of educators in Meriden are people of color while 80% of the students are people of color, says Valentin. Meriden is not an outlier in this statistic. Similar disparities can be found statewide and across the country.
Valentin, 28, has spent much of his career to date supporting diversity among staff. Before his promotion to assistant principal earlier this school year, Valentin taught fourth grade at Casimir Pulaski School in Meriden, and has been a leader of the school district's affinity group, which aims to recruit and retain educators of color. It’s an area where the district has made progress, he said, and he plans to build on those gains as an administrator.
Born and raised in Meriden, Valentin has roots to Puerto Rico on both sides of his family.
“I’m very proud of my Puerto Rican roots,” he said. “I have a Puerto Rican flag on display in my office window.”
His father, Orlando Valentin Sr. says that he always taught his children the importance of their heritage. Both Madelin Lopez-Rivera, mother, and Leslie Torres, stepmother of Valentin Jr., raised him around Puerto Rican culture. He was surrounded by family, food, and traditions.
“Even though we live in Meriden, I think it’s important for my kids to learn the history of our family like how my parents came from Rincon,” said Orlando Valentin Sr. “At the house we always speak Spanish.”
The support from his family in embracing his heritage encouraged Valentin Jr. to come back to Meriden after graduating from the University of Connecticut in 2015. He graduated from UConn’s Neag School of Education with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education with a concentration in science. In 2016, he earned a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction.
“Being an educator, we don’t go into this field for money but to make a difference, so I knew I wanted to come back to my hometown of Meriden, where I was born and raised, to start my career,” he said. Valentin Jr. attended Hanover School, where he now serves as assistant principal.
With over 52% of student’s identifying as Latino or Hispanic, Valentin Jr. said it’s important for students to have representation.
Educators of color have a huge impact on students. He referred to a research study called “the role model effect,” which found that if a black student has a black educator their chance of graduating doubles.
“Now imagine if they had more than one, their percentage would be so high,” Valentin said. He wants high schoolers in Meriden to have interest in a higher education. He is afraid that students without representation will not.‘Believer in action’
Recently, Valentin along and Hanover Principal Jennifer Kelley hired a Latina paraprofessional Kasandra Romero. According to Romero, she helps in different classrooms throughout the day, allowing her to engage with multiple students.
“This is a new experience for me, and I love it,” said Romero.
“It feels good to be able to do what others did for my kids who also went to Hanover.”
Romero said she supports Valentin Jr’s. goal to hire more people of color as educators.
Valentin Jr.’s feelings about staff diversity run deep.
“I remember when he was 15 and first told us he wanted to be the face of teachers who are minorities,” said Torres.
“He was a baby telling us that he was going to do that and I knew he could do it.”
Valentin Jr. has always been good with kids and Torres knew education was the right path for him, she said.
As a school administrator, Valentin Jr. now has a more direct hand in furthering the goal of staff diversity.
“I’m a firm believer in action,” he said.
“In this position I can have a say in the hiring process of educators.”