By Mark D. Benigni, Barbara A. Haeffner, and Lois B. Lehman
Originally published in the June/July 2020 issue of AC&E/Equity & Access
Setting the Stage for Success
In Meriden Public Schools (MPS), we believe innovation and creativity can help increase student achievement. To achieve equity and access for all, we collectively challenge existing inequities, build meaningful relationships, and actively remove barriers to success for our most vulnerable student populations.
We make a conscious effort to challenge and inspire all children, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, special needs, or socioeconomic status. Applying an equity lens to academic, attendance and behavioral data, ensures all students have access to high-quality educational experiences and graduate college, career and life ready.
By creating an environment of trust, where risk taking is encouraged, success shared, and challenges viewed as learning opportunities, MPS has developed a culture of success for all. Ensuring equity and access for all requires board policies, instructional practices, core curriculum, and student and staff mindset changes.
Committing to Equity
We believe public education is the great equalizer and education provides the path to a better life for our students. Our student population of over 8,500 students has 75% students of color and 77% eligible for free/reduced-priced meals. Our district provides a nutritious breakfast and lunch to all children.
MPS is committed to leveling the playing field for all students by providing a 1:1 environment that encourages anytime, anywhere learning in flexible learning spaces. Students are provided Chromebooks and keep them over the summer months with opportunities to check out mobile hotspots for home use. Credit-earning opportunities include student-designed Personalized Learning Experiences (PLEs), online summer courses, and credit recovery programs. A high school summer transition program, Bridge, provides support to at-risk ninth graders. Transition counselors continue support during the year, keeping students on-track for four-year graduation. Removing barriers for students led to open access to Advanced Placement courses with enrollment of students of color increasing exponentially. Using PSAT benchmark data, counselors meet with students and families to encourage enrollment in Advanced Placement offerings. Meriden’s innovative partnership with Middlesex Community College resulted in MxCC@Platt. Middlesex operates its Meriden Campus at Platt High School and, in exchange for free space, Meriden students and staff receive five tuition-free seats in all college classes at Platt.
Improving Teaching and Learning
A culture of ongoing professional learning creates a climate of trust and respect, where new ideas are encouraged, appreciated, and valued. The district has implemented blended learning strategies, personalized learning, restorative justice, youth dialogues, one to one conferences, and “no zero” grading practices. Teachers are now facilitators, while students have become creators of content.
Knowing that when our teachers learn, our students learn, a unique cabinet position, Assistant Superintendent for Personnel and Talent Development, was created to promote professional learning and build staff capacity. For educational initiatives to flourish and achieve our inclusive vision, we need teacher leaders who embrace change and understand the district’s goals. Our Teacher Leadership Academy develops leadership capacity through collaboration, professional learning, and implementation of an innovative project. The district offers authentic learning options for all staff including a New Teacher Induction Program, Peer Coaching, Instructional Learning Walks, Administrators/Union Retreat, and classroom visits.
Union-management collaboration opened the door to teacher-selected professional learning opportunities. Equity leaders, student-centered learning coaches, technology integration specialists, and “I’m Charged Teachers” provide embedded coaching. Our Family School Liaison Team facilitates active family engagement. Community members participate in teacher-led Community Learning Walks, observing our equity efforts and student-centered learning practices in classrooms.
The Eight(8) E’s to Equity Success
- Elicit the support of the Board of Education
- Examine racial and achievement data to eliminate tracking practices
- Empower educators, students, and families
- Expand your district’s technology capacity and access
- Employ strategies for all grade 9 students to be on-track to graduate in four years
- Eliminate barriers to Advanced Placement courses and ensure these classes reflect the diversity of their district
- Extend the responsibility of student success to all stakeholders
Analyzing the Impact
Empowering educators, insisting on equitable learning environments, and tracking subgroup data regularly will ensure we have schools where all students succeed. On the Connecticut Accountability Index, the Connecticut State Department of Education’s report card for districts, Meriden’s achievement growth from 2015-2019 outpaced the state as well as the 33 Alliance urban districts identified as the most economically challenged districts in Connecticut. Meriden is seeing impressive gains with double-digit growth across grades on the required Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBA). Our SBA ELA and Math results indicate a closing of the achievement gap in grades 3-5. While all students showed positive scale score gains, students of color showed greater growth gains than white students. Furthermore, student data dashboards indicate 96% of ninth graders are on-track for graduation, up from 75% several years ago. Since implementation, over 1,000 credits have been earned through our Personalized Learning Experiences program. Most importantly, over the last five years, four-year graduation rates increased by 20%. Behavioral indicators also show highly positive results: chronic absenteeism decreased by 23%, suspensions decreased by 82%, and expulsions decreased by 93%. Additionally, we have seen a 20% increase in third-grade students reading on grade level.
As we launched our digital transformation, we kept students’ social and emotional wellbeing at the forefront of all our discussions. Meriden’s Climate Suite of Tools includes an online Getting to Know You survey which allows teachers to access individual student responses, foster connections with students, and identify their interests. Climate Survey scale scores for “sense of belonging” increased significantly for our students.
Breaking the Cycle
Our MPS Team recognizes the importance of education in breaking the cycle of poverty and leveling the playing field for all students. They realize this is critical in a global society which will necessitate a workforce with requisite college, career, and life skills. If districts are serious about equity and access and ensuring success for all, they must have the full support of their Board, courageous and innovative leaders, dedicated and enthusiastic staff, and students who want to create a successful future for themselves and their families. For MPS, there is no turning back now; our students, staff and families believe in this work and our results speak for themselves!
Mark D. Benigni is superintendent of the Meriden Public Schools, co-chair of the Connecticut Association of Urban Superintendents, and vice president for the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents. He was recognized by AASA and CoSN as the first recipient of the 2019 Empowered Superintendent award and was honored as a 2015 Education Week Leader to Learn From.
Barbara A. Haeffner is director of teaching and innovation for the Meriden Public Schools. She is an advisory member of the CoSN Driving K-12 Innovation Committee and CoSN Emerging Technologies Committee. Her collaborative work has led to the district’s recognition by Edutopia Schools that Work and by Google as a Reference District.
Lois B. Lehman is coordinator of grants and special projects for the Meriden Public Schools. She is an experienced grant writer and administers numerous federal, state and foundation grants for the district. She was instrumental in the district receiving the National School Board Association Magna Award for creating equitable learning environments.