Not retired, rewired for service

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Robert Friedman

Felicia Solá-Carter (left) is president of Conexiones, a nonprofit organization that advocates for Hispanic students in Howard County Schools. Solá-Carter, shown with students at Howard High School in Ellicott City, also volunteers with a number of other organizations, including the Partnership for Public Service, and serves on the board of the Horizon Foundation.

“From early in my life, the family motto has been, to quote my mother, ‘Se servicial — Be of service’,” said Felicia (Feli) Solá-Carter.

So after a career in the Social Security Administration (SSA), Solá-Carter is spending her so-called retirement years training federal employees to excel in their jobs, advocating for Howard County’s growing number of Hispanic students, and trying to improve access to healthcare for county residents.

“I’m not retired, just rewired,” said the Puerto Rico-born resident of Columbia, Md.

Solá-Carter, now 61, began working at the SSA in 1971, right after graduating from college. She rose to the position of assistant deputy commissioner for human resources at the federal agency.

She retired from that position three years ago, and sees her work career as having been part of “the honorable profession of the federal civil service.” Since then, her retirement has allowed her to take on several challenges closer to her heart.

Empathy for fellow Hispanics

Her principal civic interest now is how Hispanic students are (or aren’t) progressing in Howard County’s public schools. She has channeled that concern into the position of president of Conexiones (Connections) — an organization that works to keep Hispanic children in area schools and helps them to go on to higher achievements in education and in life.

Solá-Carter took up the volunteer post, she said, “because I was a Latino student who had the good fortune to be born into a family that could afford an excellent education for me, from which I’ve benefitted immensely.”

She decided to permanently move from her Puerto Rico homeland after graduating from the College of Mount Saint Vincent in Riverdale, N.Y. Since Puerto Ricans, unlike other Latinos born outside the U.S., are American citizens, she needed no papers and faced no bureaucratic problems in making the move.

“I was able to get a good job [at the Social Security Administration], and I enjoyed the life in New York,” she said.

She married Maryland native Bruce W. Carter, and they are the parents of two grown sons, both graduates of Howard County schools.

She acknowledged that coming from the U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, where she attended private Catholic schools, gave her certain advantages that other newly arrived Hispanics might not have had. A strong empathy for her Latino brothers and sisters impelled her to help those less fortunate.

“I know the [Hispanic] culture and family values, and I know the language, and I see the potential of the kids and the difference that I could make,” said Solá-Carte, a native of Caguas, a mountain town south of San Juan.

Conexiones was founded in 2000, when Hispanic students were “the invisible kids” of the Howard County education system, she said. Their school drop-out rate was higher than for any other group, “and no one was paying any attention to them.”

Then along came lifetime educator Murray Simon, who spent 14 years as an advisor to education ministries in five Latin American countries. After taking up residence in Howard County, Simon saw the dropout problem among Latinos here and co-founded Conexiones with the Rev. Walter Rodriguez.

In 2003, the organization became an educational partner of the local school system. Simon retired as Conexiones president in 2007 and Solá-Carter took over the volunteer post.

“She has been doing a number of things I didn’t do, such as being a successful fundraiser for the organization and expanding the board of directors,” which adds influential heft to the group, Simon added.

A fast-growing population

The latest Census has shown that Hispanics are the fastest growing and largest minority in the nation. More than half the increase in Maryland’s population from 2000 to 2010 was due to growth in its Hispanic population.

The number of Hispanics in Howard County, while still smaller than in other parts of the state, more than doubled, from about 7,500 in 2000 to the latest Census Bureau figure of 16,729. Hispanics now constitute 5.8 percent of county residents.

The Hispanic student population in Howard County has gone from 1.3 percent of all students to 8.3 percent in 2010. This means that an improved student performance by Latino students is critical for the future of the county, not to mention for the nation, where Hispanics now make up more than 20 percent of all students and their numbers are spiraling upward.

“It’s just a matter of time” before the leaps and bounds in the Hispanic school population hits Maryland full-on, and the state’s counties have to be made fully aware of that,” Solá-Carter said.

While a relatively low number of Howard County students are considered “at risk” in terms of education progress, the largest percentage of those that are happen to be Latino youngsters.

About 15 percent of the county’s Hispanic students who started high school in 2007 had dropped out by 2011, according to the Maryland Department of Education. This compares with 11.65 percent for black students, 3.65 for Asians and 3.4 for whites.

Contrary to a common belief, language is not the main problem for the under-achieving Latino youngsters in the Howard County schools, said Solá-Carter. Only 15 percent of Hispanic students here are non-English speakers. However, more than 44 percent participate in free meal services at the schools, meaning they come from low-income families.

“Too many Latino youngsters still feel disengaged,” said Solá-Carter. So Conexiones has a special role in trying to link up those students to a brighter American future, she said.

To engage them in the county’s schools, Conexiones has, among other things, worked to create Hispanic clubs at several high schools, “so students get a sense of identity, a knowledge of their heritage, a sense of their value in being Hispanic,” said Solá-Carter.

The group has also pushed for Latino students to enter gifted and talented programs and take advanced placement classes.

Perhaps most important, she said, is the key role Conexiones played in Howard County appointing an Hispanic Achievement Specialist in the public schools. That official oversees Hispanic liaisons named at county schools that have a significant number of Latino students.

“The liaisons work with the school administration and staff to help the children and their families…making them aware that expectations are critical for a child’s success,” according to Solá-Carter.

”You have to let the child, the parents, the teacher and other school personnel know that the student is capable of high achievements and encourage them to pursue them,” she said.

This also calls for a full awareness among Latino parents that they have to become “fully engaged in the school system, which is both their right and their obligation,” said Solá-Carter.

Sharing her career expertise

The woman who was a national leader at the SSA for personnel, training, civil rights and equal opportunity, has also found time to train other Hispanic officials how to work with the federal government.

She is a leadership coach with the Partnership for Public Service, as well as a senior advisor at the Federal Training Institute run by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the nation’s oldest Hispanic civil rights organization.

She sees a personal mission in training government workers. To be a civil servant, Solá-Carter believes, is to be part of “an honorable tradition” that has kept American democracy working for the American public.

Solá-Carter appeared somewhat saddened rather than angered at the mounting attacks coming from some quarters against her previous employer, the federal government, and its employees.

“I think the lack of civility comes from not understanding just what and how much federal employees do,” she said. “When people fully understand the range and quality and the motivation behind the work — for Social Security, disease control, emergency first responders — they come to appreciate the services. It’s always easier to put the blame on something you don’t fully know about,” she said.

She also serves as a board member of the Horizon Foundation in Columbia, which funds health programs for county residents of all ages.

The foundation recently has been involved in efforts to curb childhood obesity and has made a four-year grant of $950,000 to Howard County General Hospital to help establish a Center for Excellence in Geriatric Health.

All this led to the Daily Record in Baltimore naming Solá-Carter one of Maryland’s top 100 women in 2008.

But for Solá-Carter, it all goes back to her mother’s mandate to be of service to others.

“I’ve been blessed with many opportunities, and cherish the idea of giving back and sharing what I’ve learned,” she said. “As a volunteer, I’m just being a good citizen.”