A True Advocate for Education and Youth

Feb 21, 2022

During Black History Month, Fairfield County’s Community Foundation is profiling pioneering Black leaders past and present who have made a mark on our community. Throughout the month, we will be sharing stories of these important figures and showcasing their work to make Fairfield County a stronger, more equitable community.

Growing up in a military family, the bar for education had always been set high for George Coleman.

Throughout his childhood, George had the opportunity to travel widely and explore different cultures, arts, languages, and foods.

It wasn’t until he went away to college — attending the historically Black university Tuskegee Institute — that George realized that not every family had been offered the same educational opportunities and experiences that he had been exposed to as a child.

“I thought everyone had the same advantages as I did,” he said. “I thought they would get a good education – one that would prepare them for life.”

This discovery opened young George’s eyes to the racial disparities that were embedded in the U.S. educational system and fueled what would become his life’s passion: ensuring that more children have the opportunity to succeed, and, that being a confident and curious early learner is key to a successful future in education — especially for the less-privileged children and those for which investments are inconsistent or inadequate.

This passion led him to pursue graduate degrees at Teachers’ College, Columbia University in Early Childhood Education and Curriculum and Instruction. Here, he learned to develop an anthropological perspective for his work in urban schools.

Through his academic association with Dr. Margret Mead at Columbia, he advanced the effect of “family efficacy” in holding school systems accountable for the learning, progress, and opportunities that public education affords middle class students and families and deny to their poorer counterparts.

“Until recently, public schools could and typically did, underserve poor and minority students without consequence,” he said.

Coleman holds a New York State Teacher Certification in Social Studies, English, and Early Childhood Education. In addition to private and public-school teaching, he has held adjunct professorships at colleges and universities teaching American History, English Literature and Early Childhood Education in New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut across his 50-year career in education.

As an education advocate, he used his training and educator platform to advance early education policy and enhance standards and practice in Head Start, community-based preschool programs and to advance policy that extends public school responsibility for preschool and full-day kindergarten as part of the k-12 public school entitlement.

In 1989 Commissioner Gerald Triozzi asked George to become the state’s preschool, kindergarten, and primary grades consultant and, was later given the privilege of establishing and providing leadership to the department’s Bureau of Early Childhood Education.

In that role, he developed legislation that funded and substantially expanded full-day kindergarten; advanced the professionalization of the childcare profession; drafted legislation and secured funding for Connecticut’s nationally acclaimed School Readiness Grant Program that procured a new $20 million preschool investment in the state’s most needy communities and created a School Readiness Council to oversee the local allocation and supervise the allocation of slots to community programs that met high state standards.

Other notable statewide early education contributions include organizing governor support for state participation in the Federal Birth-to-Three Grant Program that extends entitled services for infants and preschool children and families with disabilities; expanding support and funding for Family Resource Centers in public school, expanding Young Parents Programs in urban schools for parenting teen students; and, expanding the federal Head Start Program with supplemental state funds to serve more eligible children.

As Chief of the Bureau of Curriculum and Instruction he played a key role in designing and implementing the nation’s first statewide test of student performance and achievement, the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) and the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT).

As Division Director, Associate Commissioner, Deputy Commissioner, and Interim Commissioner of Education he managed the state’s first compliance with the Supreme Court’s Sheff v. O’Neill Settlement Agreement — and exercised for the first time the state’s authority to appoint an interim school board in districts where such local board are dysfunctional.

After retirement in 2011, under the sponsorship of Cooperative Educational Services (CES), George co-founded with Yale University and the Educational Development Cooperation a research entity, Partnership for Early Education Research (PEER) to conduct practitioner-oriented early childhood research to better serve preschool children and programs in Fairfield County through scientific inquiry and research.

George also served on professional boards and councils, including the Regional Educational Laboratory for New England and the Islands, State Educational Resource Center, the state and local United Ways, the Connecticut State Birth-to-Three Council, Connecticut Commission on Children, Junior Achievement, and the State FFA Council.

While George has had an amazing career and impact on educational equity, he takes his greatest pride in his family. He and his wife of 49 years, Carrie F. Coleman, live in Newtown with their daughter, son-in-law, and four teenage grandsons.

With a strong sense of optimism, George continues to be a champion for education and youth in retirement and is regarded as an informed and trusted voice for assisting local school districts plan to serve an increasingly diverse student population.

“I accept the continued responsibility to my community for the privilege of being the first Black man pictured among the long line of distinguished Connecticut White men — and one woman — who have served Connecticut as Commissioner of Education,” he said. “I will continue to spend time trying to convince policymakers and educators to invest in the education of residents at all ages and, that through education, talent development and personal security our state will continue to be a most favorable place to live.”