It’s hard to pinpoint the “secret sauce” in our exceptional Horizons GFA program. Is it the motivated students and devoted families? The resourceful Horizons board and engaged GFA host community? The expertise and passion of the executive director, learning specialists, and staff? The compassion and commitment of the teachers, coaches, and assistants? The individuals and organizations that help support and finetune our academic and social-emotional learning programs? The answer, of course, is that all of these elements contribute significantly to Horizons achieving its mission to help students succeed in school and pursue a meaningful, choice-filled life. This month, we launch a new communication, “Mission Moments,” to celebrate some of the many outstanding people who give their time, talent, and energy to help our Horizons students reach their full potential and to highlight individual student achievements. Since the heart of the Horizons GFA program has always been the strength and commitment of its teachers, we begin with Cynthia Torres, a remarkable Horizons high school coach and an award-winning social worker at Paul Laurence Dunbar Elementary School in Bridgeport.
Meet Cynthia Torres, MSW
As a Bridgeport educator and social worker, Cynthia is quick to share two important things about herself: that she is a product of the Bridgeport Public Schools and that she was determined to return there. Attending Bullard Havens Technical High School wasn’t a path she set for herself, but with little information to guide her choice, that’s where she ended up. How she got from there to UConn was honestly luck, according to Torres. “I had no idea what I wanted to do; no one back then talked about college with students from tech (that has since changed). But I distinctly remember being pulled into the computer lab one day and being told I was in the top 20 students in my class and I should apply for UConn early admission. I pressed whatever major sounded cool, submitted my application with my college essay, and called it a day. In January 2010, I got my acceptance letter and cried for hours, because although I didn’t know a lot about going to college, I knew what that moment meant. I was the only one of my graduating class to attend UConn Storrs that fall.” Many of our Horizons students come from similar circumstances and are the first generation in their family to complete high school and have the opportunity to attend college.
“Cyn is a scholar and organizational leader within the Bridgeport School District (BPS),
whose impact reverberates within Horizons,” Executive Director Erika Wesley states.
“I am incredibly grateful for the years Cyn has dedicated to supporting Horizons and
BPS students as a teacher, coach, and social worker. When our students engage with her,
they develop a relationship with someone who understands where they are coming
from and can inspire them to reach every one of their goals.”
Going from Bridgeport, with all of its cultural diversity, to the UConn Storrs campus of 2010-2014 was a shock to her system in every possible way. “I wouldn’t have made it through UConn if it wasn’t for Social Support Services and the Puerto Rican and Latin American Student Center,” Cynthia confides. “They were my greatest support.” They not only helped her connect with students like herself but also helped advocate for her when she needed it. One of those times was when a professor called her out in class for not having a required book; when she explained that she couldn’t afford to buy it, the professor said, “You shouldn’t be here then.” SSS intervened to make sure she got the book and was able to finish the course on good terms with the professor.
Cynthia’s trajectory as an educator was also unusual. When she started college, she was interested in studying immigration law, based on watching her family’s sacrifices and hard work to build their lives in a new country. She eventually majored in English literature with a minor in Latino Studies. Then, in January of her junior year, Cynthia got an invitation to work as an intern with Teach for America. “TFA provided a pathway into the classroom and back to my community in a way that made sense,” she recalls. “My TFA teaching coach saw potential in me that I wasn’t even seeing in myself, and later recommended me to Joe Aleardi, who directed the Horizons GFA Program at the time.”
According to Lisa Moore, Director of Academics and Family Engagement,
“Cyn Torres is a woman of integrity, sincerity, and talent.
Her dedication to students and families of the HGFA community
and the greater Bridgeport community spans years and reaches
innumerable numbers of people. She builds the hearts and minds of
our young people by creating a safe and fun space.” Lisa expresses the
feelings of the entire Horizons community when she says, “HGFA is blessed
to have her. She is a treasured and invaluable member of our family.”
“I have no natural talent,” Cynthia says, with sincere humility. “Everything has come from hard work.” When asked who influenced her career most, she is quick to respond, “That was definitely my mom. She came to this country from El Salvador as a teenager, with few economic advantages but a lot of drive and a lot of dreams.” Whenever Cynthia hit a roadblock in her education, her mom reminded her, “We did all this for you, and you’re going to get this done. You can’t just give up because it’s hard. Life is hard.” Beyond her reassuring words, Cynthia’s mom led by example. “She’s the hardest working woman I know,” Cynthia beams. “For as long as I’ve been alive she’s worked multiple jobs to make ends meet; she went back to school to be an LPN and continued to work towards being a registered nurse. Her lessons were less ‘we have no choice’ and more ‘who’s going to stop us?!’” That motivation inspired Cynthia throughout her upbringing to make the most of every opportunity. It also inspires her now as she works to ensure that her students have the resources and support they need to reach their goals.
“I had to experience Bridgeport Public Schools for what it is in order to lead these kids,” Cynthia explains. “You don’t know what you don’t know. How did I make it? I didn’t have access to any of the amazing opportunities that existed in Bridgeport because they were very limited.” Watching her younger brother and sister navigate the same schools years after she attended them inspired her to return.
Cynthia started her teaching career in 2014 at James J. Curiale Elementary School, where she quickly realized the importance of building meaningful relationships with students and advocating for their needs. While teaching, she piloted a mentoring program between Bassick High School students and her fifth graders that she considers the highlight of her time in the classroom. “Seeing kids connect with older peers was awesome,” she says, “and having them share their success and advice made things much clearer for my kids. They didn’t listen to me, but they listened to the same lessons from those mentors. It was dope.” She also brought her students to UCONN so they could experience a college campus. How can we expect students to live up to their potential if we never show them what it is? she wonders.
Teach for America was key in drawing Cynthia into education, but Horizons is why she stayed in education. “I saw what could happen when you work on behalf of kids using greater resources,” she explains. “The dedication I saw in other educators and the investment the Horizons program was making were inspiring. The progress was so tangible.” During this time, Cynthia was earning her M.S. in social work at Columbia University. “I loved working with Horizons because I had access to amazing SEL (Social Emotional Learning) resources and training. Horizons truly addresses the whole child.” Cynthia currently works as a Horizons high school coach and mentor and helps develop SEL resources for the program. “Everyone talks about SEL, but having people at the table who are determined to improve the students’ lives and having the money in the budget to back them up is key,” she says.
Cynthia pursued her M.S. in social work because it was versatile, and she knew she wanted to be involved in community work. After earning her degree and leaving the classroom in 2019, Cynthia ran for Bridgeport City Council. “I was interested in change on a more systemic level, shaping the policies behind the scenes,” she notes. The tensions involved with running surprised her, but knocking on doors and building relationships paved the way for what she is doing now in many ways. “The top issue for me is funding for education,” she explains. “Flat funding our schools means our students and the future of Bridgeport suffers.” Whether it is serving on the city council or the school board, she is inspired to work with education policy and lead the community-based change she feels has been missing from educational spaces. This is how she hopes to further impact the community she loves.
“My cultural roots are very important to me—the community I grew up in, the way I was raised, being the first generation to grow up here—are all tied to who I am,” she states, noting that people growing up in Bridgeport experience an exceptionally diverse community of people who want to keep their connections to their roots (which doesn’t exist in many other communities). Beyond the cultural diversity, however, there is an even more important conviction to lead with authenticity. This makes Bridgeport feel like home to her. “The community here can see through what’s real and not. Leading with your true self and living through your values is what’s going to get you success,” she explains. “As amazing as Bridgeport can be, it also has its limitations,” she continues. “I only knew Bridgeport for what it was and never realized how much of a disadvantage it could be for my educational future. It’s important to keep building rose gardens.”
Christina Whittaker, Director of High School and College Programs affirms
“Cyn is an integral part of our high school program team. The relationships
she has built with her students and their families have allowed them to
persevere through the challenges of attending high school during a pandemic.
We are so grateful for her commitment to the Horizons community.”
“Bridgeport shaped me. I am grateful to the people who saw the potential in me,” she says, adding “but my connections through Teach for America and Horizons are what enabled me to become who I am.” These programs clearly ignited a fire in Cynthia that has given her not only passion but purpose in her work with students. “I don’t want to ever wonder if I could have done more,” she states.
Torres recently received the Superintendent’s Recognition Award. Her principal nominated Cynthia after “a really hard first year at a challenging school,” citing her willingness to jump in, rely on her strengths, and collaborate with families. “This year is even harder than last,” Cynthia confides. Virtual schooling has taken a toll on students and teachers alike, with constantly changing Covid rules and everyone learning how to navigate new territory. In addition to all of the normal stress that has always existed, schools are dealing with mask mandates, social distancing, less structured routines, and new power dynamics. After two years of being more remote, students ask, “Why should I listen to you?” How do teachers deal with their own social-emotional needs? Cynthia wonders, noting that many go home to their own kids at the end of the day. And how do students go on, given the traumas they’ve experienced? “My dad died last month,” one student told Cynthia recently. He was five years old.
The impact Cynthia and other coaches are having on our Horizons high school students is evident not only in their grades and motivation but also in their self-confidence. As one Fairchild Wheeler 10th grader, who has worked with Cynthia for the past 2 years, states, “Thanks to her help, I have been able to learn a lot. She has taught me about self-care and self-gratitude. She’s helped shift my mindset toward positivity. She has always pushed me to try my best, and I appreciate everything she has done for me!”
“You don’t know what you don’t know as a student,” Cynthia reiterates. But now that she has gained a broader perspective, she is using what she’s learned to guide others, both as a school social worker and Horizons coach. “Advocating for the people in my own community has always been a priority for me. I don’t see a strong future unless I give back to the community that gave so much to me. I believe in our students.”
Giving back is clearly both her passion and purpose.
Thank you, Cynthia Torres, for entrusting HGFA with your story.
Thank you, Robbi Hart, for interviewing Cyn and serving as our Mission Moments Editor.
Thank you all for your readership, and please be on the lookout for
more inspiring, mission-related stories from our HGFA community!
– Erika Wesley, Executive Director