City’s Chief of Early Childhood Education Wins National Award
April 24, 2008
As a bright college student in Puerto Rico, Jose Colon-Rivas was well on his way toward a promising career as a medical technologist when he made a big discovery while looking through his microscope.
“I realized I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life staring through a microscope,” laughs Colon-Rivas, now Executive Director of the Mayor’s Office For Young Children. His work in that role was recently given national recognition when he was presented with the Lewis Hine Award for Service to Young Children. Hine was a ground-breaking photojournalist who exposed the tragedy of child labor in the United States in the early 20th century.
After switching from scientific studies to education, Colon-Rivas went on to get a Ph.D. in Curriculum, Instruction and Child Development from Pennsylvania State University.
While at Penn State, Colon-Rivas made frequent visits to his sister, a teacher in Springfield, MA. “It was always wonderful to see the lights of the Hartford skyline as I was driving to Springfield...eventually I fell in love with the city,” he said. Through his sister, Colon-Rivas was able to meet a few people in the Hartford school system and soon landed a job as a teacher at Hartford Public High School.
One of his first assignments was teaching math to 23 Vietnamese students. “They spoke very little English and I was still learning the language myself. We communicated through the universal language of numbers. I was a student as well as a teacher. It was a wonderful experience...Now I see those kids working at good jobs all over Hartford. Two of them even went on to Harvard University,” said Colon Rivas.
From HPHS, Colon-Rivas went on to Bulkeley High School. He taught there until 1997, when he was named Assistant Principal of the School. Colon-Rivas said he decided to move from teaching to administration because “There were certain things I felt I needed to have an impact on and I couldn’t do that from the classroom.” However, he continued to teach “just to keep myself involved with students.” He’s still teaching as a volunteer at Capital Community College, despite his pressing schedule as head of the the Mayor’s Office For Young Children.
From Bulkeley, Colon-Rivas went back to HPHS, where he served as Principal and was instrumental in helping that school retain its accreditation. Due to his success, he was given a post in the school system’s central administration, where he was placed in charge of making sure that all Hartford schools remain accredited.
While working in this post, Mayor Eddie Perez called on Colon-Rivas and others to help draw up a “blueprint” for improving early childhood education in Hartford. Once this plan was completed, Perez asked him to be in charge of implementing it and, in 2005, he was appointed to his present position.
As head of the Mayor’s Office For Young Children, Colon-Rivas is responsible for improving educational opportunities for youngsters from birth to age 8. With such a broad assignment, his department is involved in a wide variety of projects but Colon-Rivas says there is one strong unifying theme. “Everything we do for the community must come from the community,” says Colon-Rivas. “We do a minimum of 400 interviews [with members of the community] before we go ahead with a project.”
One of the department’s most recent efforts was a “Progress Report on Young Children,” which was published in January of this year. Completing the book required an entire year of meetings with parents, children and other persons involved in the education process.
Another publication produced by the Office for Young Children is the Neighborhood-Based Family Support Guide. While Hartford has many schools and other programs serving children, community members said there was a need to compile information on all these agencies in one place. 5,000 copies were printed about a year ago and they are now all but gone.
One of the most visible initiatives of the Office for Young Children is the annual Family Fair at Hartford City Hall.
This years Family Fair will be held on Saturday, May 10, at City Hall from 12-5 pm. The theme of the event will be science and Colon-Rivas and said there will be a wide variety of activities, including live animal displays. “Fun is the key,” said Colon-Rivas, who added that approximately 2,300 children and parents attended last year’s fair.