A Connecticut superintendent put teachers and students at the forefront of all decisions and transformed a district.
When Mark Benigni took the reins as superintendent of Connecticut’s Meriden Public Schools district in 2010, the central office was half empty—the superintendent, assistant superintendent, and personnel director had recently retired. While there was hope for change and innovation, there was no plan for how to get there.
“We were kind of being stale—doing the same thing over and over and wondering why the kids weren’t buying in,” Benigni said.
He could sense the teachers and students felt it too.
With a limited budget, Benigni started small—providing dedicated time each day for teachers to talk to each other, hoping to build trust that would support reinvention. But something bigger happened: Teachers started identifying and driving improvements across the district.
This shift away from top-down innovation made all the difference, Benigni said: “Collaboration is about recognizing that the best ideas don’t always come from the superintendent’s desk. Sometimes it comes from our students or our families, and many times it comes from a great teaching staff.”
Taking direction from his staff, Benigni targeted key areas for investment: enhancing professional development for teachers and administrators; focusing on an individualized, student-centered teaching approach, backed by new one-to-one technology initiatives; and making an ongoing commitment to collaboration between administrators and teachers.
Today, the diverse 8,000-student district is humming with innovation. Throughout Meriden’s 12 schools, teachers put students at the center of their instruction, directing them to take the lead in their learning process. One-to-one technology is available in most schools, and students are encouraged to use it anywhere to drive their learning. And staff are equipped to ensure that every child, regardless of needs and abilities, is empowered to achieve to his or her potential.
Meriden is seeing results. Suspensions are down 86 percent and expulsions are down more than 95 percent since 2011. Teachers report a more positive working environment district-wide. And in 2016, Meriden reported some of the highest test scores in its history, and was honored with a National School Board Association Magna Award and recognized as a District of Distinction by District Administrationmagazine.
With their safety goggles on and knowledge of chemistry in hand, twelfth-grade students in Brenda Parness’s class at Maloney High School are working to identify six white mystery compounds. One student reminds her group to test whether the powdery substances are soluble and to check density and conductivity.
As they work, Parness moves around the room, listening to questions but providing minimal feedback. At the school, teachers take on the role of guides, encouraging students to think outside the box and become active problem solvers rather than passive note-takers.
The student-centered approach to instruction was identified during Meriden’s teacher-to-teacher collaboration as a way to give students more “voice and choice” in their learning. While the shift hasn’t been easy, it’s helped increase student engagement and decrease time off task as students take more ownership of their work, according to teachers, including English language arts teacher Patrick Good.
“For 17 or 18 years, it was, ‘What am I going to tell the kids today?’ And now it’s, ‘What am I going to have the kids show me today?’” Good said of the new student-focused approach. “The person who is blown away by that is me.”
“Once upon a time there was a castle,” a first-grade student types on a Google Chromebook.
“Who lives in the castle?” prods one of two fifth-grade students who look on supportively during a lesson in the weekly “tech buddies” program at John Barry Elementary School.
The program, which pairs older and younger students for technological training, grew out of a need to improve students’ skills after the school went one-to-one—part of Meriden’s larger push to modernize teaching and learning district-wide after Benigni came on board.
In one session, fifth-grade students taught their first-grade buddies how to use Google Slides and learning apps like Padlet, Osmo, and myON to create interactive presentations on reptiles.
Partnering teachers meet once a week to plan sessions centered around what younger students need to learn to do independently. They say the program is empowering their students, improving confidence and social and emotional skills. Though the older students say teaching can be challenging, they also say it’s worth it.
Walking into the “sensory room” at Hanover Elementary School, you may see a child being pushed in a large swing or crashing into soft floor mats. Another may hit a punching bag or test his or her balance on a walking path.
For students with autism in particular, the sensory room has become a safe space to get grounded and release emotions before they go back to class to learn.
In 2013, the school transformed the room as part of a larger effort to improve Meriden’s special education services after Benigni realized that too many special needs students were being sent outside the district to get the care they needed. In Meriden, roughly 14 percent of the student body has an Individualized Education Program (IEP).
Students with autism attend daily 30-minute “sensory breaks” as well as a weekly physical therapy session, learning breathing exercises and calming movements that help them regulate behavior and emotions. According to teachers, the sensory room is the most important piece of their students’ day, and has increased time on task and decreased negative behaviors.
“Research shows if the students are in the right mindset and they get their sensory needs met, they are going to be much better learners,” said special education teacher Cheryl Cunningham. “After the sensory room, they’re able to focus more and learn easier, and they retain more information.”
Walking through Meriden’s schools, it’s hard to believe there was a time when the district was stuck in the past. The profound changes of the past several years are apparent to teachers and students alike.
It was new leadership—and the resulting shift to teacher-driven innovation—that made Meriden’s reinvention possible, according to one principal, who says educators now feel confident about sharing their thoughts and trying new things.
“Leadership is about making people comfortable to take risks,” said Benigni, who was recognized as a Leader to Learn From by Education Week. “If you’re not willing to fail, you’re never going to be innovative, and you’re not going to be as successful as you should be.”