On this episode of What Will We Take With Us?, a series featuring our conversations with education leaders across the United States on how they grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic in K-12 education, we speak with three school leaders from Meriden Public Schools in Connecticut: Mark Benigni, Superintendent of Schools; Barbara Haeffner, Director for Teaching and Innovation; and Susan Moore, Supervisor of Blended Learning Director for Teaching and Learning. These three leaders shared with us how they worked to establish partnerships with community organizations and local educational institutions, to reimagine learning spaces, and to leverage technology to support students and create engaging learning opportunities.
Prior to the onset of the COVID 19 pandemic, Meriden Public Schools was considered by many to be an early leader in digital transformation and school innovation. Investments and technology personalization and student centered learning approaches meant the district had already begun to lay the groundwork to pivot their model to support students holistically during the pandemic. The district leadership team, composed of administrators who grew up personally and professionally in the community, leaned into complexity to offer students rich learning experiences by thinking entrepreneurially about the creation of new partnerships and how to leverage existing resources like space and technologies in new ways. In this episode of The Learning Accelerator's "What Will We Take With Us?" leadership podcast series. We're going to hear from district leaders at Meriden Public Schools about what they tried, what they learned and what they're taking forward as they head into the 2021- 2022 school year. I'm Mark Benigni, superintendent of schools, this is year 11. I was born and raised in Meriden, attended the public schools and when the opportunity to come back as superintendent presented itself, for me, it was really it was personal. It was about making sure that our staff, our community, got the respect that I felt that they deserve. I'm Barbara Heffner. I'm the director of teaching and Innovation. Like Mark said, I joined the Meredith team 11 years ago, so just after he became superintendent. So it's kind of a unique position in Meriden in that we've had the same superintendent as long as I've been here, which is pretty exciting and we're a district that's able to do things. I am Susan Moore. I am the supervisor of Blended Learning in the district, which really looks at how do we maximize all of our digital content and ensure that we are using technology to improve teaching and learning as opposed just for technology's sake. So this position has existed, and I've been in it for about five years now. Meriden Public Schools, located in central Connecticut, operates 13 schools with approximately 8600 students. More than 70 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price meals. The student body is made up of global majority learners, including 57 percent who identify as Latine. The district's mission is to provide all students with educational opportunities to acquire the knowledge, skills and attitudes that will enable them to lead productive and self-sustaining lives in a democratic, multicultural society. As schools shifted to remote and hybrid models of instruction during the pandemic, the district's leadership team at Meriden Public Schools prioritized this mission from the very beginning. Leaning into the challenge of the moment, the team looked to increase the resources they had available to address crises and then continue to deepen opportunities for equity. The first place this showed up was in the summer of 2020, while the district had technology in place for their students. Meriden Public Schools had to figure out how to build upon their foundation as a one to one district to quickly support remote learning over the summer. Last year because of the pandemic. We couldn't hold our in-person STEM camps that we would normally hold, and so it was a virtual experience. A box of STEM materials were shipped to every participating students home. They opened up their box, got on a Google meet with their teachers, and they went through the contents in the box and they went out and created. And then they came back and shared with the rest of the group what they had created. So, you know, just trying to make sure that those learning opportunities are still there, even when the students aren't in school at the high school level. We actually offer credit earning opportunities. So asynchronous courses taught by one of our instructors that students had the ability to to sign on and through our learning management system, take a course earned credit over the summer. Some did that to accelerate their credit attainment. Some did it to remediate their credit attainment. But the opportunity was there. And then when we had our elementary students taking home our devices, it was really OK. To what end? What are the activities that we can do to help support learning over the summer? And so many of our digital content partners have independent activities available to them. So for example, we utilize a program called Myon, which is really books, right? So if you want to read and you can't get to the library, you have access to hundreds of different titles. So allowing students to use their devices to participate in things like the governors reading challenge. So if this becomes their learning tool, the worst thing we could do is over the summer months when we're concerned about summer slide and lack of engagement is to take those devices away. This commitment to use the technology tools on hand was soon followed up by efforts to create more resources to support student needs. One way the district was able to achieve this was by establishing and doubling down on numerous creative and strategic partnerships. For example, confronted by the need for additional distance learning teachers, Meriden turned to a neighboring district for help. One of our neighbors, which is a suburban district, Cheshire Public Schools, they didn't have enough distance learning spaces for their teachers, so they needed a couple. So we sent them an in-person teacher to get to distance learning teachers back in return. And so we got to distance learning teachers for sending them one in-person teacher. But we also opened up some of our A.P and classes that were offered outside of school hours to their students, and we agreed because we had an equity team. We agreed that we would give them some equity training from our team. We did incentivize the deal by saying, Look, we're offering these AP classes outside of our school hours. If you have students that are interested. Let us know. And we have this terrific equity team that's been doing training in our district. Let's hope and our team did go and train a group of Cheshire educators as well. But it also was about cross union participation. So the advantage wasn't simply we got two teachers and they paid their teachers, we paid our teachers. There was no money exchange here at all. But it was also like getting a PhD in NEA to work together as well, and they didn't always have the same views on in-person learning throughout. So in a small, well way, a creative partnership that I think benefited everyone in the process and they feel like they won. We feel like we won. So it's obviously a good deal. Thinking entrepreneurially about partnerships is not an uncommon practice in Meriden. Indeed, it's more the norm. Meriden launched additional partnerships focused on expanding access to college credit and career credentialing. It's almost common practice here in Meriden to think about how we can leverage creative partnerships to the benefit of our district and students. So that was like one example. We also have a partnership with our local community college where they needed space and we had space at our high school and so an exchange was made. They used the space at our high school and we get free seats for our students and our staff. If they run thirty five classes out of high school, which is our one of our high schools, that obviously we have the spaceafter 2:
30, we can definitely give them a wing in our school. No one's there, so they get the space for free. They pay for security personnel, they have tutors, so they utilize our space. We get five free seats for our students and staff and any class they run on site. So before pandemic, they we running like thirty five classes. I'll never fill all those seats initially, but I'm setting the foundation for later and we always have had a handful of staff in a group of students take advantage of those opportunities. So that was another way we partnered. So we do have a partnership with the vote tech system, and we launched a career academy which allows our students to attend three of their trade programs after school and they on city credits, industry certifications, apprenticeship hours. And it allows us to meet some of the requirements of providing opportunities for students through our Perkins funding. We're actually expanding the program now, so we'll go from three to four shops in September, manufacturing culinary arts facilities, carpentry and will be adding automotive, collision and repair. And we're also expanding the partnership to include another site and a daytime program where our students will attend our high schools in the morning and then we'll transport them to the vocational school and they'll be able to work in those shops, manufacturing or track and earn their credentials there. So just a creative way for us to be able to have our students earn credentials while.still in high school. Through our rise of Dollial Foundation work. We had an opportunity come to us for our high school students to participate in a Harvard American poetry course. They would take the Harvard course at both of our sites and earn Harvard credit, as well as high school credit. So there were 11 school districts in the nation and we were one of the 11, so we're talking places like San Diego, maybe St. Louis, big School Districts and Meriden, Connecticut. And we were one of the top performers. So kudos to our teachers and students who are participating in that. But that success and opportunity for our students, we just brought forward five more courses from the National Equity Lab that they're offering us partnerships with Howard University, Cornell, Yale. So again, another partnership that continues to grow and more offerings for our students. In addition to that, locally, Quinnipiac University has just reached out to us and said, Can we form a partnership with you where your teachers are teaching your courses? Our School of Communication approves the syllabus, and those students can get college credit for completing those courses. So if there is a venue to provide more opportunities for our students, we're all in and we'll explore any opportunity in those. Once you have one opportunity, other opportunities present themselves. Navigating physical and social distancing constraints also help meridian leaders explore new ways to use community spaces, encouraging school leaders to reimagine outdoor areas as learning spaces, and to build upon existing partnerships to fuel the development of new physical learning areas. After a year of seeing the potential of these outdoor spaces in action, the district's shared that they intend to keep using them in the future. When we were faced with, OK, we're opening schools and how are we going to make this work with the recommendations of our health department and what needed to take place in order to open schools safely? We really needed to look at all of our sites holistically and how we were going to be able to manage moving people in the buildings, what spaces were being used for, what we're learning spaces and what spaces needed to be used for things like mass breaks or how much more space do we need for lunch if we're going to have students eating with their masks off? Obviously, right? So I really think that that forced us into doing a deep dove to look at spaces both within and outside of the building. So we utilized every outdoor area that we could, whether it was a place scape or mark already talked about bringing the tents in. Some of our schools have gardens that were utilized as learning areas. We borrowed picnic tables from our YMCA camp. So again, there's another partnership. Some of our schools have nature trails that again work came out of another grant partnership with the Audubon Society, and they really became learning areas, not just areas, for going and taking a mask break, right? So if we're going to be outside? What are the elements of the natural setting that we can use to enhance learning? And I think that some of those opportunities? We won't go back on that now. Right. So there's an example of things that we'll continue to do post-COVID is utilize some of these spaces and in new ways. And I don't know why we never did like elementary outdoor concerts before, like the kids loved it. We probably just didn't think of it. Like it's always been done in the gymnasium because the stage is there. Well, we have this beautiful hill that the student body can like. So there were so many things that that we could have and probably should have thought of that just the pandemic and wanting to be outside instead of inside and trying to distance our students turned us on to. We had designed an out before the pandemic. We had created our first outdoor classroom, so had to I mean, it was done up, done up. Really nice. But benches for the kids spaced out, you know, a nice marble top for like a teacher's desk. And you know, we had a few teachers who were gung ho about. So we were starting to head down this road. And I think then the pandemic hit and were like, Geez, we probably should have been doing this. So now there is discussion like why does the learning? We had always said, Well, learning can occur any time, anywhere, you know, it can happen at home, it could happen here. And but most of it was us looking inside areas rather than opening our minds to the the outside and even though we're urban districts. Seventy seven percent of our students qualify for free and reduced meals were universal free breakfast and lunch. We really our schools do have some nice outdoor areas that we probably hadn't considered as learning spaces as much as we should have. The COVID-19 pandemic forced nearly every school to pivot to new models for teaching and learning. Almost overnight, Meriden Public Schools focused on establishing and fostering partnerships with community. Any organizations and local educational institutions reimagining where and how learning can take place and thoughtfully leveraging technology to support all students regardless of their physical location, the new circumstances posed by the pandemic fueled the district to implement several unique and exciting initiatives, many of which will stick around in a post-COVID world. Thank you for listening to this episode of The Learning Accelerator's "What Will We Take With Us?" leadership podcast series. For more resources and leadership stories, visit HopSkipLeapFrog.org.