Courtesy of Madeline Negrón

Madeline Negrón says that she remembers memorizing the words “I don’t speak English” ahead of her first day in an American school. 

Negrón was 10, and she had just moved with her family from rural Puerto Rico to Willimantic, Connecticut.

Her first day at school was an unfamiliar experience. She rode a school bus for the first time and arrived at school lost, getting directions from someone who spoke Spanish to help her find her classroom. When she walked in, Negrón said she sat in the back row and prayed she would not be called on to read or speak, worried that others would make fun of her.

“Coming over to the mainland and walking to this very different culture, that was the very first time I felt, ‘Oh, I am different,’ but not only did I realize that, I was also treated differently,” Negrón said.  ”That event has been deeply rooted in who I am today.”

In July, Negrón was named superintendent of New Haven Public Schools, the first Latina to be in charge of the second largest school district in the state.

Negrón has taken over NHPS at a difficult moment for the district. As of mid-August, the district had 84 unfilled teacher vacancies. Test scores in New Haven are low, with 87 percent of third graders reading below grade level. 

“My vision is that we are working together to make sure that all of our kids, all 19,000 plus, are able to get the same quality education that will result in that preparation and that readiness for success,’ Negrón said. “I think it’s doable.” 

So far she has joined forces with teacher’s union leaders in a push for more staff to adequately maintain buildings. 

Negrón described feeling pressure for her to achieve more in life, both for herself and for her family. Her parents dropped out of school in middle school, and she dreamed of attending college. The environment she said she first encountered with teachers and administrators in school was one of resistance and  hostility.

“They could not see past the fact that I was limited in the English language, and for some, that equated to limited intelligence, limited potential, and it became the pattern of the low expectations,” Negrón said. 

From college dreamer to aspiring to teacher

Negrón said she knew she wanted to go to college from a young age but struggled to figure out how to both attend and afford it. 

Due to her initial language difficulties she felt she was left  behind by her own teachers and received fewer resources in her education than she should have.

“When I finally went to college, it was actually my dream to be a prosecutor,” Negrón said. “I wanted to practice law. I wanted to lock up criminals.”

But her parents were already borrowing money to pay for her college education, and going to law school seemed financially unrealistic for her. Beyond money for tuition, it would require her  being dependent on her family for several more years, which did not seem possible for her. 

Negrón said that she resented the fact that she could not pursue law school. The resentment led her to study education, saying that she hoped to break the cycle of poverty and ensure that future students will not be forced to turn away from their dreams as she had to. 

According to her NHPS biography, Negrón obtained a B.S. degree in Spanish from Central Connecticut State University. She then received a Masters in Education and a doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Connecticut.

Back in the classroom 

Negrón’s first experience as an educator was teaching in a transitional bilingual program in the same middle school in Willimantic that she had once attended.

“Going back to that building, I remember sitting in faculty meetings where I could actually see my former teachers. And now here I am; I’m your colleague,” Negrón said. “The treatment of some of them in the past was that I couldn’t do it, so for me, it was about proving them wrong”. 

She said she loved her time in the classroom. Her vision, she said, was always to make the classroom an environment where students were seen, heard and welcomed — something she did not feel growing up.  

Negrón described her first time teaching in New Haven — at Hill Regional Career Magnet High School — as “magical.” The diversity and celebration of difference, how so many different groups were respected and appreciated in New Haven, she said, was what made her enjoy the job the most. She said that she could not have asked for a better city to live in.

“I felt like I was in a district that was investing in my own growth as a professional,” she said.

Every step of the way, Negrón said she aimed to show that she would dedicate the most amount of time to her students as possible. By breaking cycles of poverty and proving those who doubted her wrong, including former teachers, wrong, she was having the last laugh, she said. 

Negron’s drive for change did not stop in the classroom. After holding several teaching positions, she said that she still felt many doors continued to be closed for students of color, and she could not accept this reality. She said that she realized her position as a teacher limited her impact to just the kids in her classroom. 

Negrón told the News that she wanted to go beyond making change in one classroom and felt like it was the right time to advance her career. 

Working as a school administrator, Negrón said she has had the “ability to get in front of an entire faculty, share my story, and continue to tell folks we are going to set high expectations for kids.”

As Negrón began to have a larger impact on the education of the students around her, she said she began to feel more accomplished.  She served as principal at Hill Regional Career Magnet School, then director of early childhood for the NHPS. Negrón also worked as chief of academics, teaching, learning and student support in New Haven. Before her appointment to superintendent, she served as the acting deputy superintendent of academics and school leadership for Hartford Public Schools. 

Pushes for inclusivity and collaboration

As an administrator, Negrón touted her mission of boosting inclusiveness and openness as a necessary value for educators. She said she thinks about this every time she is creating a new team or hiring for the NHPS. 

“We have to make sure that we’re not only hiring that the person has a skill set to do that particular role, but we also have to do a good job in trying to get a good sense of their mindset,” she said.

When asked about prejudice in education today, she said that she hopes to see a more fair future, but said that she still sees a lot of resistance to minority voices today in education. She said that people often see certain assets in some groups of people and deficiencies in others because of “their color, their language [or] their gender.”

Two educational leaders praised Negrón, who has served as superintendent for four months, for her work, saying that she was the right choice for the job in interviews with the News. 

“I am looking forward to her attention, to detail, her clarity and her work ethic. I think those three things are really going to help New Haven Public Schools move in a direction that we need to go,” Leslie Blatteau, president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, said.

Darnell Goldson, a member of the city’s Board of Education, shared his satisfaction with the beginning of her term, citing her use of concise, data-driven reports as useful for understanding the district’s challenges, as well as her vision for it.

Negrón told the News that she still misses teaching sometimes, but that she is fulfilled with the amount of connection she has with schools, kids and teachers as superintendent. Her vision is to ensure that every one of the nearly 20,000 kids enrolled in New Haven public schools have access to “the same quality education” that will set them up for success in life.

Matt Wilcox, vice president of the city’s Board of Education, told the News that he is also satisfied with Negrón’s work over the past four months. 

“I’m quite impressed with her in her first few months working with the district,” Wilcox said. “I’m looking forward to her continuing that work. I think she’s doing a great job.”

As she looks to the future, Negrón said that she approaches every child she meets with a great sense of respect and belief in their potential because she never knows if they will become her boss, just as she did.

There are currently 44 schools in New Haven Public Schools.

Lua Prado covers education & youth services and immigration & international communities in New Haven and writes the Tuesday Newsletter. Originally from Sergipe, Brazil, she is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College, double majoring in Political Science and English.