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Taking The Controls…Board Elects Borrero As Chairman

Taking The Controls

By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer

December 1, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Hartford Courant. All rights reserved.

Piloting Hartford Schools

I. Michael Borrero and his son narrowly escaped death 27 years ago when all the fuel in the plane he was flying leaked out on the way from Seattle to nearby San Juan Island.

"First I get this `plunk' - the engine was back-firing," he recalls. "Before I know it, the propeller stops."

Though he landed the plane safely, Borrero confesses that the state of emergency was his fault. "I could have watched the gauges," he said, so he would have known he was losing fuel before he lost it all. "Now, I watch the gauges."

When Borrero presided over a recent Hartford Board of Education meeting in Chairman Wayne A. Carter's absence, shades of that lesson learned in the sky were evident. As he so often does, Borrero was digging for the downside of a presentation the deputy superintendent was making about a program - in this case, the development of theme academies in high schools.

Borrero was concerned that officials would not share information evaluating the academies as they went along. He didn't want to wait until the fuel ran out of the program before discovering there were problems.

"So often so many of us feel we get the rosy picture. We want to see some of that data," Borrero told the deputy superintendent.

Borrero, who is expected to be elected chairman of the school board to replace Carter on Tuesday, does not like to be spared the harsh reality. Again and again as vice chairman for the past year, he has asked administrators making presentations to spare the board "dog and pony" shows and to speak frankly about struggles to improve city children's poor academic performance.

He is a man who likes to watch gauges.

Borrero was born 63 years ago into the most extreme poverty in Santurce, a part of Puerto Rico that locals called "el fangito" or "the mud lands." His house was a shanty on the shore without running water or electricity. His mother died when he was 2 and his father died when he was 3 or 4. The Red Cross placed him with one family, and his five or six siblings - he can't recall how many - were placed with other families.

His adoptive parents, who had a third-grade education, brought him to New York after World War II to give him a chance for a good education. The family settled in Hell's Kitchen, and his parents ran a small grocery store.

Borrero excelled at baseball, and after high school tried out for the Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles. He was devastated when he didn't make the cut.

So he turned to his job working with youths at the YMCA in Manhattan for ideas for his future. The Y arranged for him to take a career aptitude test and out of the set of professions that he showed a talent for, he selected social work. The psychologist who administered the test wasn't encouraging, though, telling him that he wasn't "college material."

Soon after, Borrero confronted his boss at the Y about practices that he thought turned kids off. "He said, `Until you get a college degree, you do what you're told.'"

That was it. Borrero made up his mind to go to college. Trouble was, he didn't have the transcripts for admission to a good school. So when New York University rejected him, he pleaded for a chance. An admissions officer told him to take five specific courses and promised to accept him if he achieved a B average. "I got a B plus," he said.

The school admitted him with the condition that he maintain that B average and he did. Scholarships helped with tuition, and a job running a youth and family program for the YMCA covered the rest.

He went on to earn his master's degree in social work at Columbia University. Alex Gitterman, one of his Columbia professors who later worked with him as a colleague at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work, said that what Borrero did next surprised him. He enrolled at Brandeis University for a doctorate in social policy and research with a concentration in labor economics.

"He's a Puerto Rican man. Many schools would have taken him on the spot with an easier doctorate program," Gitterman said. The course at Brandeis, he said, required challenging economics classes that deterred other candidates.

Reflecting on his path from humble beginnings to a 24-year career as a UConn research professor, Borrero recalled a photograph of Santurce that he acquired as an adult. The image has become a touchstone, a gauge of his own progress in the world.

"When I get cocky, I say, `That's where you come from.' It's been a journey."

A defining characteristic of Borrero is the creative way he approaches problems. When he took a job at the University of Washington in Seattle, he fell in love with San Juan Island. There the family could watch killer whales, go clamming and fishing and dine out on great seafood.

The commute was a bear, though - two hours by ferry plus another hour and a half in the car. That left little time to enjoy the bounty of the island. So he bought a plane and learned to fly to cut his commute to 30 minutes. Eventually, he became a certified flight instructor.

"I'm the kind of person who learns when I teach," he said.

A Calming Effect

The years of flying have strengthened his ability to keep his cool. As Borrero made a recent flight over Hartford, the air traffic controller at Brainard Airport seemed overwhelmed by pilots who couldn't see each other through the clouds and by a student pilot on the ground who had mistakenly pulled through a runway intersection. The addled controller was rude and sometimes unresponsive, but Borrero remained calm, but persistent.

In the 1990s, Borrero put some of that calm to work on the streets in Hartford. Gangs were terrorizing the city and law enforcement was doing what it could to lock up lawbreakers. Borrero sought to apply his academic expertise to prevent violence.

He created the Institute for Violence Reduction at UConn, where he hired gang members to serve as ears in the community, help him to defuse crises and to educate other professionals about gangs.

"When you're dealing with behavior, you go to people manifesting that behavior and engage them in the solution," Borrero said.

Some were skeptical of his approach, though, including then-U.S. Attorney Christopher F. Droney, now a U.S. district judge. "Chris Droney called me the naive professor," Borrero says.

Droney disagreed publicly with some of Borrero's theories and requests, such as Borrero's push to free some gang members without bail while they awaited prosecution.

"He's been taken in by a few of the gang members he worked with, but that could happen to anybody," Droney said in 1995. But he added he supported Borrero's efforts to prevent crime.

Gitterman praised him for applying his academic know-how to the streets. "It's very rare for people to be working with violent youths in academia. He's got the vision. He's got the interpersonal skills. He's got academic skills and experience and he's got the budget skills."

Borrero's work with gang members and with the Puerto Rican Forum, a community-based organization that prepares young people for work, also got the notice of Eddie A. Perez, now Hartford's mayor, who appointed Borrero to the school board last year.

"I didn't appoint him for his political skills," Perez said. "I appointed him for his ability to make a commitment and do the homework."

Perez was impressed by the way Borrero stuck with his mission to prevent violence by working with South Middle School students for years, long after the headlines about gangs faded.

James Fagan, principal of the school now known as Bellizzi Middle School, said Borrero brought former gang members to the school to counsel students. "They had credibility, and they'd follow the kids on the street and check on them. They gave the kids their beepers and phone numbers and they were available 24-7."

Borrero also brought his UConn interns in to work with the students, and Fagan noticed that violence dropped off at his school: "Mike and his interns would push the line - go out on the streets."

When Borrero joined the school board, he sought a project providing a more systemic approach to helping children deal with personal problems.

"The question is, how do we stop losing so many kids? We're losing kids to behavioral issues. We're losing kids to drugs and to pregnancy and to violence and detention centers," he said. "I think we lose three kids a day. We lose between 500 and 550 kids between ninth and tenth grade."

Borrero initiated an effort that includes the school board, administrators, the mayor, the state Department of Children and Families, the Department of Social Services and local social service agencies to coordinate services to help students and their families.

Such collaboration is typical of Borrero, board members say.

"He's not a lone ranger who goes out on his own and then surprises you," said Ada M. Miranda, another Perez appointee to the school board. She said he is realistic about what can be achieved.

Miranda said Borrero also makes people feel comfortable and valued. In particular, she said, he is good at eliciting women's opinions and paying attention to what they say. "He's not one who gravitates to a male point of view," she said.

While board members and residents appreciate Borrero's candor, school administrators sometimes bristle at his pointed questions. He once demanded that an administrator report back to him with a strategy to improve children's poor reading skills.

The implication that a strategy did not exist caused discontent in school district offices the next few days. Borrero also publicly told the former state education commissioner that he felt an "us-vs.-them" mentality between administrators and the school board. Again, a buzz ensued.

While the problems Hartford's schools face are enormous and complex, Gitterman said Borrero has the smarts to tackle them. Perez says he has the leadership skills, too. And board members say they enjoy working with Borrero.

"I see him as a very strong leader," said board member Elizabeth Brad Noel. "Board members have different strengths, and he recognizes that and capitalizes on that."

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Board Elects Democrat As Chairman

I. Michael Borrero Concerned Over Schools' Dropout Rate

By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer

December 3, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Hartford Courant. All rights reserved.

As expected, the Hartford Board of Education on Tuesday unanimously elected I. Michael Borrero as its chairman.

Borrero, a Democrat appointed by Mayor Eddie A. Perez, has said he wants to focus the school system on lowering the student dropout rate. He wants to concentrate on reasons students drop out such as pregnancy, drugs and violence.

A retired University of Connecticut professor, Borrero, 63, was the board's vice chairman and succeeds the Rev. Wayne A. Carver as chairman. His election

marks the first anniversary of the board's return from state to local control.

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