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Hartford Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez shares her life story and ties to Puerto Rico

Looking back to her youth in Hartford during the 1980s, Leslie Torres Rodriguez, says libraries were an “emotional and physical safe space.”
Mark Mirko
Connecticut Public
Looking back to her youth in Hartford during the 1980s, Leslie Torres Rodriguez, says libraries were an “emotional and physical safe space.”

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Hartford Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Leslie Torres-Rodriguez was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, and moved to Hartford at the age of nine.

“It's always my first home. You know, now, whenever I do go back, it’s like I'm going back home. It shaped who I am as a woman, as a person as una Latina,” she said.

When she transitioned to life in Hartford with her mother and brother, she found herself “smack in the middle of Park Street.” It was the three of them journeying across the sea to a new environment with a different language and customs.

“I remember not wanting to come, and being very sad we were leaving everyone,” Torres-Rodriguez said. “What I was pleasantly surprised by was the fact that there were ties that already existed with the Puerto Rican community, that specifically brought a level of comfort. The other thing was the community resources and support that were available to my family.”

The Park Street Library became her sanctuary while adjusting to a new city.

“Those were challenging times for young people growing up in the city,” she said. Yet there were some resources available to her and her brother year round along with nearby community based organizations where her mother took English classes.

“We made do with what we had,” Torres-Rodriguez said. “While we lacked a lot in terms of resources and access, we certainly didn’t lack love and warmth and the notion that education mattered.”

Torres-Rodriguez spent the rest of her formative years in the Hartford Public School system and always felt like one day she’d want to give back to her community. She’s served in different educational leadership roles for over 25 years.

She believes her approach to her job and commitment to service started when she was living in a multigenerational home in Santa Isabel, with her grandparents. From the age of seven, she helped with her grandfather’s correspondence because he only had a second grade education.

“I think that was such a foundational value around voice and service to other people.” she said. “Like always being mindful of making sure you’re intently listening so you can capture what people are saying. That’s how I lead.”

That’s what led her to her true passion – education. The idea that everyone can do better. She became dedicated to making sure all students of all ages have equal access to education.

She says there’s a level of collaboration in Hartford that has to happen in order for people to access the resources they need.

“It’s not that people don’t want to do better, it’s that sometimes the conditions don’t exist or they don’t know how to access it. Hartford has taught me that advocacy is necessary,” Torres-Rodriguez said.

She feels especially close to Hartford’s Latino community. As a student in the bilingual program, she remembers not feeling supported when transitioning out of the program in high school. Her administration is now implementing after school programs to better meet the needs of Latino students.

“We’ve been able to support students with their social, emotional, and mental health needs,” she said. “When I think about our multilingual learners, our Hispanic students, it’s about the Seal of Biliteracy. We want to make sure that we communicate to our students as they show mastery in native language, as they show pride in their heritage and culture, that they belong here.”

After Hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico in 2017, 13,000 people moved to Connecticut. Many children who were forced to relocate were students. And Torres-Rodriguez felt a deep sense of responsibility for those impacted.

“Helping others is so important to me and it all started on the island. Even though I’m not there, I know one day I’ll be back to serve Puerto Rico. When I arrived in Hartford I said one day I’m going to contribute to Hartford and leave this place a little bit better than I found it,” she said.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the city in Puerto Rico where Torres-Rodriguez was born. She was born in Ponce, not Santa Isabel.

Lesley Cosme Torres is an Education Reporter at Connecticut Public. She reports on education inequities across the state and also focuses on Connecticut's Hispanic and Latino residents, with a particular focus on the Puerto Rican community. Her coverage spans from LGBTQ+ discrimination in K-12 schools, book ban attempts across CT, student mental health concerns, and more. She reports out of Fairfield county and Hartford.

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