April 5, 2015 | last updated April 5, 2015 5:14 pm
Women In Business 2015

Torres' leadership provides students with career track

PHOTO | Steve Laschever
PHOTO | Steve Laschever
Nivea Torres, superintendent of CT Technical High School System, holding a photo of her with her mentors. Nivea, middle, her mother, Nivia Josefa La Torre, at right, and Dr. Xae Alicia Reyes, UConn professor, at left.

Who is your mentor and why?

As a Latina woman and educational leader, I benefitted greatly from the example set by many impressive women who I met along the way and who instilled in me courage, determination, and confidence. But none more impressive than my loving mother, Nivia Josefa La Torre, for it is from her that I learned to have a strong work ethic, humility, and a respect for all individuals.

My advisor for my doctoral dissertation, Dr. Xaé Reyes reminded me of the pride I need to feel as a Latina woman and how I could use my position to help others within the community to grow and excel as professionals.

My gratitude to Dr. Ann Anderberg who was my first supervisor when I moved to Connecticut 18 years ago. Dr. Anderberg believed in me and my abilities as an educator when I doubted myself. I learned from her the value of quality bilingual education and the need to address issues of equity for all students.

How do you mentor your staff?

I try to develop my staff through the concept of teamwork and collaboration. I believe that as a leader, I must model for my staff the values and qualities that create a successful organization and work environment. To me these include teamwork, mutual respect, and coming together around a common vision.

What advice could you offer to people thinking about being a mentor?

Think about your strengths and how these can better serve others around you. Constantly self-reflect on your own growth as a leader and you will see that as you grow, so do those around you!

Nivea Torres brings a focused, professionally driven and deeply personal approach to her job as superintendent of the Connecticut Technical High School System (CTHSS), which she and her staff are tirelessly aiming to put at the forefront of career and technical education nationally.

First as interim superintendent since Jan. 2013 and then as permanent superintendent since Feb. 2014, Torres has poured herself into the job overseeing 20 schools with about 11,000 full-time high school students, 5,500 part-time adult students, 2,300 employees and a $156 million budget. She has overseen five school renovations exceeding roughly $400 million, including reopening J.M. Wright Technical High School in Stamford.

She's driven by her passion for education and the memory of her younger brother, Juan "Juanito" Torres, who died in a tragic accident in 1999. He was 18.

"I want to be the voice, I want to be the advocate for students in Connecticut," says Torres, 45. "I also do this to honor the memory of my brother. I really believe in that, I'm a very spiritual person."

Her brother was considering taking classes to become an automotive technician and envisioned possibly opening his own automotive shop, Torres says.

"I wanted to help him dearly get to that point," she says. "I just want to see that other youngsters like him are able to fulfill their plans and get to where he was not able to get."

Torres' tight-knit, small family includes her mother, older sister and nephew, who's 23 and like a son. She was born in Puerto Rico and speaks English and Spanish.

She entered education by accident after studying foreign service and international politics at Penn State University, envisioning working in law or in an embassy as a foreign service officer. Returning home for a break and expecting to apply for law school in the mainland, she answered a job posting in 1993 for an English as a second language (ESL) teacher at an adult technical college and loved it; she chose education for her master's degree.

She got that, working as an ESL teacher for adults and young students in Puerto Rico until 1998, when she visited a cousin in Windam, and saw a job posting for an ESL teacher in the public schools there. She was hired, teaching ESL to high school students for two years before becoming coordinator of bilingual programs for the district, which she did for seven years while earning her Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction at the University of Connecticut.

The superintendent then asked her to become principal at a low-performing K-4 school. She loved it, calling it one of her most rewarding jobs.

"On your worst days, you can go into a kindergarten classroom and those kids will make you feel like you're a star," Torres says.

She turned the school around, dramatically improving student performance in three years and reaching "safe harbor" under the federal No Child Left Behind act. Meeting that challenge, she sought another, which brought her to CTHSS as assistant superintendent for curriculum instruction in 2010 before becoming interim superintendent.

She's proud of the community and teamwork she's helped establish at CTHSS, creating a feeling among staff that they're part of something great and making a difference at a state level. She emphasizes the Women In Business award isn't hers, but "a testament of what we have been able to accomplish together."

She's also proud of increasing the district's visibility and recognition.

"There's still some misconceptions about career and technical education and what we do …," she says. "This is very high-tech, very project-based for our students, there's a lot of technology, there's a lot of academic rigor and instruction in our technical high schools, state-of-the-art equipment."

Students leave with a diploma and trade credential equipped to work at a good technical job or go onto post-secondary education, which more than half do, she says, noting CTHSS's dual mission.

Along the way, Torres says it's also important for leaders to self-reflect constantly on what's working or not.

"You can't expect your employees to do that and change their practices and behavior if you're not doing that yourself," Torres says.

Paul Pita, CEO of The Pita Group in Rocky Hill, admires Torres' impact on CTHSS, her management style, expertise, accessibility and likability.

"She really has created a culture of greatness," Pita says.

"She has the great ability to manage this in a way that continues to create results," Pita says. "I believe she's setting up Connecticut to be really a leader in the technical high school program."

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