MERIDEN — It was nearly 17 years ago when Miguel Cardona, then an assistant principal at Hanover School, assumed the role of principal at the school.
That was in the fall of 2003. Cardona had been an assistant principal at Hanover under the school’s former principal Mary Noonan Cortright, who at the time had been promoted to superintendent of schools in Meriden.
Noonan Cortright, who is now retired, reflected on Cardona’s progression as an educator and a leader. Cardona was officially sworn in Tuesday night as the nation’s secretary of education under the administration of President Joseph Biden, the day after the U.S. Senate voted 64-to-33 to confirm his appointment to the role.
Noonan Cortright said Cardona has the same traits now as he did when he was an assistant principal at 25 years old.
“He’s honed his skills. But he’s still the same person,” Noonan Cortright said. “He’s able to be true to himself. He knows who he is. He knows where he comes from. He knows where he’s going. He brings that with him. I think that’s going to really help him move other people. He’s someone that does listen to others.”
While others may consider Cardona’s rise from classroom teacher to building principal, central office administrator, state commissioner and now education secretary, meteoric, for former colleagues like Noonan Cortright, it all makes sense.
“It’s just a natural progression, how his career has gone,” she said, describing Cardona at 25 years old as having been “very mature beyond his years.”
Former colleagues, like Noonan Cortright, described Cardona as an educator who leads through listening and consensus building. At a time when educators and leaders nationwide are not in agreement about the opening of schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic, she and others described listening as a skill sorely needed.
“I realize that it’s very different going from Meriden, Connecticut to the United States Department of Education,” Noonan Cortright said, adding, “But there is no real training for a job such as that. What we really do is depend on the traits and attributes of the person in that role. I do think Miguel has the ability to do that.”
Lauren Mancini-Averitt, a history teacher at Maloney High School and president of the Meriden Federation of Teachers, seemed in agreement. She described Cardona as a “true listener” and collaborator.
“When he listens, he listens,” Mancini-Averitt said. “When he’s talking to someone… he wants to hear where they’re coming from.”
Aside from those facts, Mancini-Averitt and others said it’s fantastic to see someone rise through the ranks first as a student and then teacher in the Meriden Public Schools.
Krista Vermeal, a fourth grade teacher at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School, too described Cardona as a collaborative leader who works hard to build and maintain positive relationships with educators, families and students.
“He’s very focused on social emotional learning. He’s very focused on engaging our students who don’t speak English as their first language. He’s very engaged,” Vermeal said.
Meriden Board of Education President Robert Kosienski Jr. said Cardona is an educator first, who “believes that all children can learn.”
Kosienski said he personally will miss Cardona’s daily presence in Meriden, but added, he believes Cardona will always be a part of the local community even if he’s not physically present.
Kosienski said above all, he is thrilled.
“We are thrilled for our country. We are thrilled for our students. We are certainly thrilled for Dr. Cardona. It’s just amazing that this man who is the epitome of kindness, family, faith and educational expertise is going to be leading our country. It’s an incredible honor,” Kosienski said.
Meriden School Superintendent Mark Benigni agreed.
“President Biden is going to have an education secretary who is grounded and who benefited from all that public education has to offer,” Benigni said.
Act of kindess
Henrietta Scalise, who lives one street over from Cardona and his family, said based on her experience having him as a neighbor, she knows “he will be a wonderful, giving secretary for our country.”
Scalise recalled having met Cardona prior to Christmas in 2019. She noticed he had a simple nativity scene displayed on his front lawn. Scalise said she approached Cardona with a question: Where did he get it? She wanted to buy it for her nephew in Florida. She thought it would make a great gift.
Scalise said after she asked Cardona the question, she received a surprise: He ordered her the same set, so she could send it to her nephew.
“I never forgot,” Scalise said. “He treats everyone with respect.”