AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Tomorrow, the Senate Education Committee will have a lot of questions for Miguel Cardona. They'll be considering his nomination to be the next secretary of education. And he will, no doubt, be asked about school choice, closing opportunity gaps and most critically, how to help America's schools reopen. It will be Cardona's first big moment in the national spotlight. Here's NPR's Cory Turner with a quick primer on the former fourth-grade teacher.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Let's start with the man in his own words, when he accepted the ed secretary nomination.
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MIGUEL CARDONA: And I, being bilingual and bicultural, am as American as apple pie and rice and beans.
TURNER: Cardona's biggest job to date was as Connecticut's education commissioner for just the past year and a half. Before that, he'd spent his entire career as a public school educator in Meriden, Conn., far from the politics of Washington.
MARK BENIGNI: Meriden is a small, urban district. We have 12 schools, 8,500 students, but our central office core leadership team is about six individuals. So...
TURNER: Mark Benigni is superintendent of Meriden schools. He hired Miguel Cardona in 2013 to join that small team, after Cardona had served as a teacher and principal. Benigni says he and Cardona both grew up in the old factory town of about 60,000, where three quarters of district students qualify for free or low-cost meals.
BENIGNI: Neither of our parents had much. You know, I grew up in a third-floor apartment. He grew up in the projects. This system mattered to us on a deep, deep level. I mean, it not only helped raise us, but it also is where our own children go.
TURNER: Cardona grew up in public housing to parents from Puerto Rico, like many families in Meriden. He attended a local trade high school and studied automotive tech. But when he went to college, he decided to focus not on cars but kids and became a fourth-grade teacher.
CHRIS GARCIA: I remember one time I was kind of struggling with school. You know, I wasn't really doing what I needed to do.
TURNER: Chris Garcia was one of Mr. Cardona's very first students in Meriden.
GARCIA: He spoke into me. He was like, you know, Chris, you're a young, Hispanic man. And do not let any obstacles stop you. Whatever you want to do, you can do.
TURNER: A few years later, when Garcia was having trouble again, his mom sent him to a neighborhood homework club.
GARCIA: Well, guess who's there? (Laughter) Mr. Cardona.
TURNER: In fourth grade, Karla Rodriguez says her passion was singing, so Mr. Cardona encouraged her to sing in front of the whole class. Even years later, in high school, she remembers taking the stage at a talent show.
KARLA RODRIGUEZ: And I hear my name - go, Karla. And I look over, and he's right there. And I would always know he was there because I could hear him. Like, he was not shy. You would always hear him in the crowd (laughter).
TURNER: At 27, Cardona became the youngest principal in Connecticut. Later, as a district leader, he was known for his ability to find consensus, says Erin Benham, the former head of the Meriden teachers union.
ERIN BENHAM: Like, you're not going to get someone screaming and yelling. That's not Miguel. I don't think I've ever, ever seen him scream and yell.
TURNER: Gwen Samuel runs the Connecticut Parents Union and says her daughter had a bullying issue in Meriden when Miguel Cardona was assistant superintendent.
GWEN SAMUEL: I'm like, hey, Miguel, this just should not be happening. We got some serious stuff going on, and that's one of his strengths.
TURNER: Samuel says he was parent-friendly and responded quickly but that his plan ultimately did not work for her. And Samuel worries that Cardona is so willing to find consensus and so new to national politics that she doesn't know what he stands for.
SAMUEL: If you wanted to heal the nation, he's going to be great for that. Where he might get in trouble, where he realizes he is not in Kansas is when he starts to make some of these decisions because he will have to find his voice.
TURNER: Since it was Cardona who helped Karla Rodriguez find her voice back in fourth grade, I asked her, does she worry if he's ready for the politics of Washington?
RODRIGUEZ: I do worry because his heart is pure. He's one of the best people I've ever met.
TURNER: But she's also thrilled and says this time when he takes the big stage, she'll be the one cheering loudly.
Cory Turner, NPR News.
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