2020 Empowered to Lead Symposium: Featured Speakers

 Shanna Peeples, the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, took the road less travelled on the way to her classroom. She worked as a disc jockey, medical assistant, and journalist before teaching, as she says, chose her. Shanna taught middle and high school English in low-income schools in Amarillo, Texas for 14 years. Because Amarillo is a resettlement area for refugees, students as diverse as the Karen people of Myanmar to the Bantu people of Somalia, make up classes in her former assignment at Palo Duro High School.

Currently, Shanna is an Equity and Access Fellow in residency at the Council of Chief State School Officers to complete a doctorate in Education Leadership at Harvard Graduate School of Education. At Harvard, she was a Teaching Fellow and is part of two teams: one, an education startup, the other, a consultancy.

A former reporter for the Amarillo Globe-News, Shanna won awards for reporting on health issues, schools, and music criticism. Her writing has appeared in Education Leadership, Education Week, the Washington Post and the New York Observer; currently, she writes for multiple publications on Medium. Her book, Think Like Socrates: Invite Wonder and Empathy Into the Classroom, was chosen by the National Education Association Foundation and PDK International for their membership.

Dr. Miguel A. Cardona was appointed Commissioner of Education by Governor Ned Lamont in August 2019. Dr. Cardona comes to the State Department of Education with two decades of experience as a public school educator from the City of Meriden. He began his career as an elementary school teacher and then served as a school principal for ten years. Miguel transitioned to central office to lead the work of Performance and Evaluation in the district. In 2013, he assumed the role of Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning.

Dr. Cardona served as the Co-Chairperson of the CT Legislative Achievement Gap Task Force as well as Co-Chairperson of the CT Birth to Grade Three Leaders Council. He also taught for four years as an adjunct professor at UCONN in the Educational Leadership Department.

Dr. Cardona attended Meriden Public Schools and graduated from Wilcox Technical High School. Miguel attended CCSU for his Bachelor’s degree and UCONN where he completed Master’s in Bilingual/Bicultural Education, Administrator Preparation Program, Doctorate in Education, and Executive Leadership Program (Superintendent) Certificate.

A lifelong Meriden resident and product of its public schools, Miguel is very active in his community having served or currently serving on several non-profit charitable organization boards of directors. His greatest source of pride, however, is his family. Miguel and his beautiful wife, Marissa, are the proud parents of two children.

Sheena Graham, a performing arts and choir teacher at Bridgeport’s Warren Harding High School, is the 2019 Connecticut Teacher of the Year. Currently in her 37th year of teaching, Sheena has spent her career educating a wide variety of students of all ages, ranging from pre-K through 12th grades. Her current assignments at the high school include teaching choir, black history chorale, peer leadership, theatre, piano, and performing arts.

Having written, produced, and directed original musicals, Sheena’s body of work also includes original songs performed at the White House and the Kennedy Center. Some of her more recent work includes songs in memory of the victims of the Newtown tragedy and L’Ambiance Plaza collapse, and in support of breast cancer and child abuse survivors. Among her current projects is a call to action for America in response to the senseless shootings involving police and of police.

Among many notable accomplishments and experiences throughout her career, Sheena has received several major awards, including the Beard Excellence in Teaching Award, the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Teacher of the Year Award, the NAACP Teacher of the Year Award, the Bridgeport Teacher of the Year Award two times, the Outstanding Teacher Recognition Award, the Delta Phi Kappa Educator’s Golden Apple Award, and a Choral Director of Distinction Award. She was featured in the book Notable Valley African-Americans and has been recognized by several mayoral administrations, district superintendents, arts supervisors, and numerous other organizations for her work as an educator in the performing arts. Sheena graduated with a bachelor of science degree in music education from Western Connecticut State University and earned master’s degrees from St. Joseph University and Southern Connecticut State University.

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