Native son brings national expertise to New London

New London - Manuel Rivera was hitting the road. Again.

This time, it was to London. A week or so before, it was Chicago; last month, Dubai. Even when he's home in New London, his personal cellphone and work BlackBerry buzz relentlessly. He's up writing memos at 6:30 a.m., squeezing in interviews an hour later and then running out to meet with the principal of Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.

It's all in a day's work for the 2006 National Superintendent of the Year, whom the American Association of School Administrators heralded for helping raise test scores as superintendent of the Rochester, N.Y., school system. Rivera was hired to run the Boston school system in 2007 but made a last-minute change to New York instead, where he served for a couple of years as deputy secretary of education.

Now at an educational management firm, Rivera, 59, may be one of the hardest people in the city to track down for a face-to-face interview, but for Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio, he's just a phone call or email away.

Finizio announced in December that Rivera, who works in New York City and returns to New London on weekends, would be his senior education policy adviser, a lofty title with no salary attached.

Rivera's is a pro-bono, volunteer position. It's a job he said he is doing when he has time, when he's not tied up with work for GEMS Education, which operates private schools around the globe.

Rivera is chief executive officer of GEMS Americas, which is poised to open its first preschool in Chicago this fall, as well as of Global Partnership Schools, which specializes in turning around low-performing schools. GPS is in its second year working on Warren Harding High School in Bridgeport.

"Coming back to New London, personally, has been terrific for me," Rivera said in recent interview in the Pequot Avenue home he bought two years ago. His tidy living room overlooks the Thames River and Electric Boat, where he worked as a forklift operator and truck driver for seven summers. His late father, José Manuel Rivera, was a welder there.

"But you also, to the extent that you can and time is available, you also want to volunteer, provide whatever support you can," Rivera said. "So I said to myself, 'Well, why not?' There's this set of skills and knowledge that I have, and to the extent that I'm able to give back in any kind of volunteer way, why not do that?"

Rivera and Finizio met at a family picnic - Finizio's partner Todd Ledbetter is Rivera's cousin's son. Rivera said he'd seen a mention of creating an incentive system for teachers in Finizio's platform and wanted to talk to Finizio about how the city could implement such a system successfully.

"When someone with that level of national reputation, on an issue that's so important to our community, comes to you as mayor and says, 'I'm willing to offer you my insights for free,' I think you would just be foolish to say no," Finizio said of Rivera's offer to serve as an unpaid adviser.

Feeding Rivera's desire to spend what little downtime he has on yet more educational issues is the New London pride evident in the way he talks about his hometown, and in the green-and-yellow baseball cap that sits like a trophy in his tidy living room.

Rivera - Manny to all - is a 1970 graduate of New London High School, a runner who set the school's half-mile record as a senior.

He may be a nationally recognized figure in the world of education and educational policy, but at the end of the day, he's a New Londoner, he said.

"I'm always going to be a New Londonder," Rivera said. "I want to see New London be one of the best cities in the state of Connecticut, ultimately in America. There's no reason why it can't be. I mean, look at this beautiful city. And as I once heard a politician say, let's not talk about the potential of New London. Let's make it happen."

'A unique opportunity'

How exactly Rivera's advisory role will shape up in this new form of government under strong mayor leadership remains to be seen.

While Finizio has said Rivera will be available to both his office and the Board of Education, board Chairman Bill Morse said Finizio has yet to talk to him or to Superintendent Nicholas Fischer about how exactly Rivera will contribute to the city.

Morse and Rivera were introduced informally several weeks ago at Muddy Waters by the café's owner, Barry Neistat. But the two sides haven't sat down to talk, and Rivera said he hasn't been to any of the schools or learned the ins and outs of a school system under state watch.

Though the 3,000-student New London school system is drastically smaller than the Rochester schools, with some 35,000 students, there are similarities. As in Rochester, New London's student population is largely poor, with 94 percent of New London students qualifying for free or reduced lunch, according to state data from the 2009-10 school year.

Nearly half of the students are Hispanic, and a quarter of the total student population lives in homes where some 15 different languages are spoken.

Students here have performed poorly on standardized tests. The district's 10th-graders had the lowest reading test scores in the state last year.

Rivera said he won't have answers to every question. But where he doesn't, he can call upon colleagues across the country to "find out what they're doing and what's working," he said.

Morse said he looked forward to working with Rivera.

"Anyone with experience in successfully addressing this issue, I very much want to hear from," Morse said.

Fischer said he envisioned Rivera fulfilling a role similar to those of consultants the district already uses.

"My sense is that on an issue-by-issue basis, he may be asked to express an opinion to the mayor," Fischer said.

Rivera already has worked on one of those issues. Finizio said he recently asked for Rivera's thoughts on a board proposal to increase GPA requirements to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities.

Finizio said Rivera's insight as both a New London native and as a well-respected educator are proving "invaluable."

"I think it's just a unique opportunity that we have a New London native, a New London resident who has this national expertise and is willing to offer this very valuable expertise that normally he could charge huge fees for, and do it for free," Finizio said. "I just took it as a sign of community support and public service on behalf of a native New Londoner who wants to offer himself to the betterment of the community."

j.cho@theday.com

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