Who We Are
Rachel (Gary) Martin, Interim Executive Director
A Hartford native, alum of Hartford Public Schools and the first CREC magnet school, and the parent of a former magnet school student, Rachel’s involvement in the magnet school movement spans 18 years. She has worked in communications and public relations on behalf of Connecticut non-profit organizations and educational institutions for over 10 years, including Hartford Public Library, University of Hartford, and Wesleyan University. Rachel was a 2010 Fellow with the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism. She is a longtime activist for social justice, a founding member of the Connecticut Youth Activist Network and a facilitator with RE:Center, Race & Equity in Education, and the Connecticut Youth Forum. Rachel majored in Creative Writing at the Greater Hartford Academy for the Arts, and holds a B.S. in Geography from Central Connecticut State University.
Our Board of Directors
Elizabeth Horton Sheff, Co-Chair
Elizabeth Horton Sheff is a justice seeker. Throughout her many years of community activism, she has advocated on many civil rights fronts, including championing the rights of persons who reside in public housing; those infected or affected by HIV/AIDS; families marginalized by economic challenges and grandparents raising grandchildren. Horton Sheff is also known for her role as named plaintiff of Sheff vs. O’Neill, the successful landmark civil rights lawsuit, with mandate to provide equal access to quality, integrated public education in Connecticut. She served on the City of Hartford, Court of Common Council from 1991-1995 and 1999-2001. During her tenure there, Ms. Horton Sheff initiated the “Campaign for Civic Pride,” which increased citizen access to and participation on City Boards and Commissions; promoted jobs and wealth building opportunities for Hartford residents and businesses in city assisted projects; created and led the city-wide literary effort “Keep Them Reading” campaign; encouraged community policing through strengthening the city’s Civilian Police Review Board; and hosted “Community Council,” a monthly public access television show through which she kept Hartford residents informed of resources available and happenings in Hartford city hall. Ms. Horton Sheff is a trained licensed nurse and a graduate of the Hartford Seminary Black Ministries Certificate Program. She holds an Associate and a Bachelor’s degree from Charter Oak State College, and a Masters of Education, Educational Technology degree, from the University of Hartford. She is the recipient of numerous awards and recognitions, including a Doctorate of Humane Letters granted by the University of Hartford in 2013.
Jim has been a member of the Sheff Movement for 10 years. He served two terms on Hartford’s City Council, from 2004-2012. During that time, he was the majority leader and chaired the Council’s Education Committee. He was selected to serve on the Hartford School Board, State Trustees Overseeing Hartford Board of Education from 2000-2002. He is currently the Director of Strategic Development at Capital Workforce Partners and has been a consultant for the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving’s After-School Initiative and Youth Development Programs. Jim is the former executive director of Hartford Areas Rally Together (HART, Inc.). Prior to that, he directed the Michigan Avenue Community Organization (MACO) in Detroit, Michigan. He earned an MSW in Social Work from UCONN’s School of Social Work and a BA from College of the Holy Cross. Jim is a resident of Hartford. He is married and has two daughters.
Karen Taylor is a parent and longtime resident of Hartford’s Northeast neighborhood. She has middle school aged twins who attend a Hartford magnet school. Karen is a member of the board of directors for the Hartford Public Library, Capital Region Education Council, and Hartford Performs. She is a proud graduate of Weaver High School and Trinity College’s IDP program. As a former Hartford public school student and parent of school aged children in the city, Karen is committed to supporting opportunities and excellence in education for all Hartford children. She is most passionate about utilizing schools as a vehicle to improve quality of life, self-awareness, and civic engagement.
Karen earned her B.A. from Trinity College in Educational Studies with honors. Her area of concentration was social class, race, and inequality. She has authored award-winning research on the nuances of Hartford parent-school involvement, a subject very near to her heart. Ms. Taylor works as the director of the Consortium on High Achievement and Success (CHAS) at Trinity College. She also has the incredible honor of serving as advisor to Trinity College Black Women’s Organization. Of all her roles, she is most proud of her duties as mother and resident chef to her twinners, Miles and Gabrielle.
Courtney, a graduate of Tufts University and Duke University Law School, was a founding partner of the Hartford law firm of Berman, Bourns, Aaron & Dembo, LLC. After 50 years in a general litigation and family practice, including 30 years as a divorce mediator, he retired at the end of 2015.
Courtney has served on the boards of non-profit organizations in the Hartford area since 1970, chairing several of the boards during this 40+ year period. His experience includes both starting a small non-profit organization in downtown Hartford in the ‘90s, The Gathering Place, and as a board member of Wheeler Clinic, a large organization providing integrated behavioral and physical health care services in 13 communities in the state. He currently serves on the boards of Mediators Beyond Borders, Int’l, and Vision Health International.
Nancy Y. Mendez
An alum of Hartford Public Schools, originally from Colombia, Nancy has lived in Greater Hartford for 30 years. Nancy is a parent of two magnet & district school students and has been involved in the schools for many years in different roles. An avid advocate for school and family engagement, Nancy has served as Parent Chair for School Governance Council and Secretary roles in the PTO at her younger son’s school. Nancy has also served as a board member for the Southwest and Behind the Rocks Neighborhood Revitalization zoning committee and the Education committee. She earned the Family Development Certification from the University of Connecticut in 2015; this has helped her while working with families in her role as Community Specialist for the Hartford Public School District Choice Office.
Nancy holds a B.A. in Human Services and Sociology from Charter Oak State College and is pursuing her Master’s degree.
Gene Leach earned degrees at Harvard, Michigan, and Yale before beginning his career at Trinity College in 1975. There he taught American Studies and History and at various times headed the Trinity programs in those fields. His teaching ranged broadly over the turbulent cultures and political economy of the United States; his scholarship centered on American social thought and the experience of the working class. With his wife Kathy Frederick and his children Rachel and Joseph, Gene joined the Sheff vs. O’Neill lawsuit as one of its original plaintiff families in 1989. He has been an active member of the Sheff Movement Coalition and currently serves as secretary of the SM Incorporated board. He also writes, teaches, and volunteers for museums, journals, and other organizations devoted to the study of Connecticut history.
Patricia J. Wrice
Pat Wrice served as the Executive Director for Operation Fuel for 19 years. Her background includes previous positions as: Executive Director of the CHILD Council; Program Director for Center City Churches in Hartford; Executive Director of the Human Resources Agency of New Britain; and, Program Director for the Connecticut Housing Coalition. Ms. Wrice has worked in the Hartford community for many years and has over 30 years’ experience in the human services and community organizing field. Ms. Wrice has a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Connecticut School of Social Work and an undergraduate degree in Political Science and Economics from Central Connecticut State University. She has alsoattained a certificate in Non Profit Management from the Non Profit Support Program of the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.
Jessica Pepin is a Hartford native and has worked in education for over 15 years as a School Counselor. She earned her B.A. from Central Connecticut State University in Sociology and Criminology and graduated from the Honors Program. After studying the criminal justice system she decided that education and early intervention would be where she focused her energy. She returned to Central Connecticut State University to earn her Masters and 6th Year degrees in School Counseling and Educational Leadership. Jessica is committed to equity in education and teacher development.
Norma taught for 20 years in Hartford before beginning a School-Within-A-School called Project Breakthrough at McDonough Elementary School in Hartford in 1991. This was the precursor to her proposal-writing and principalship for the Breakthrough Charter School, receiving its charter and opening its doors in a church in Hartford in September, 1998. Breakthrough Magnet School, a Global School for Students of Character, was honored as a National Magnet School of Merit in ’09, ‘10,’12 and ’13 under her leadership by the Magnet Schools of America.
Norma has earned degrees in psychology, education and administration from Springfield College, University of Hartford and University of Connecticut, respectively and is a certified instructor in Mindfulness by Mindful Schools in Oakland, CA. She testified for the Sheff plaintiffs in ‘94, as a teacher in Hartford, in the historic case in CT’s schools, and again as a principal, as the plaintiffs returned to court to press for the state’s redress and reduction of the racial and economic isolation of Hartford’s school children in ‘02 . She has been a part of the Sheff Coalition monthly meetings and calls to action since the early 2000’s.
Norma is now the Director of the Breakthrough Training Institute, founded in 2013, consulting with and running workshops for principals, teachers, parents and students in schools, churches and community organizations in brain-based, positive discipline, mindfulness, and on the unique B.R.I.C.K. Character Curriculum.
Lorenzo Blake is a Hartford native born to Jamaican immigrant parents. As a student, he participated in Hartford’s Project Concern program for two years before moving to Bloomfield, CT. Currently, he is a parent to an Open Choice student in the Avon Public School district. In recent years, he has served as an advocate and community organizer for various non-profit organizations in the Hartford area.