Meriden Public Schools

Benigni: In Meriden Schools, 'College Culture' Starts in Kindergarten

To get children used to the idea that college is on their horizon, Meriden Public Schools give kindergartners a t-shirt emblazoned with the year they will graduate college.

”To build a college culture, it starts in kindergarten,” Superintendent Mark Benigni told members of the Board of Education this past week. “I really believe public education in Meriden is the great equalizer. It’s a way of giving students a chance for a better life.”

The college culture and student-centered learning programs follow students in the early grades with direct reading instruction, adaptive software and teaching support. The changes led to a 20 percent increase in grade three reading, Benigni said.

Closing the gaps

At the high school level, 30 to 39 percent of the city’s high school students took an advanced placement exam in 2018, but only 10 to 19 percent of the city’s 12th graders scored three or higher on an advanced placement exam, Benigni said.

One of the district’s goals is to increase the number of students taking advanced placement tests and improve scores.

Meriden Public Schools improved its statewide accountability index standing 5 percentage points since 2016, despite a state drop of 1.2 percent, Benigni said.

The Next Generation statewide accountability index is a set of 12 indicators that measure how well a school is preparing its students for success in college, careers and life. The system moves beyond test scores and graduation rates and provides a multifactor perspective of district and school performance and incorporates student growth over time, according to the state Department of Education website.

”All 12 schools showed improvement in closing those gaps,” Benigni said. This is accomplished by asking “Are we making sure every student is receiving the same level of instruction everyday? Are our students ready for the next challenge and being successful later in life?”

Comparative gains

The district scored fourth overall over other cities and towns in its district reference group. Elementary schools scored higher than the state average as well as Middletown, Wallingford, and Southington, and two points behind Cheshire, and one point behind Berlin, according to Benigni’s presentation.

The college culture was supported with transition support for 240 high school freshmen who received on-track coaching on attendance, grades, behavior, and college and career readiness.

At Maloney High school, 79 students are enrolled in credit recovery option programs and 105 students at Platt High School.

The addition of Middlesex Community College on the Platt High School campus has also been a benefit, Benigni said.

High school student enrollment in college classes increased from about 15 students in fall 2017, to 35 students in spring 2019. The value of the free seats to students and employees is $34,008 in 2019, Benigni said.

Students in the district’s two high schools are offered assistance boosting credits through summer bridge and other programs. Grades 10, 11 and 12 visit selected colleges and can take virtual college tours. A wall banner “Ask the Experts” lists the schools, teachers and colleges they attended to encourage student questions and curiosity.

High school students also attend workshops and boot camps on college applications, financial applications, scholarships, military and apprenticeship roundtables. Accepted students have a senior signing day where students accepted to prestigious schools, or who have won significant scholarships, are recognized.

“We have college and career events, and scholarship opportunities” Benigni said. “We want to be sure they know all options.”

Local funding issues

The district received 52 percent of its funding from the state, and 38.5 from the city, Benigni said. About 1.45 percent comes from foundations and 8 percent is from the federal grants.

“We haven’t been funded appropriately for our budget that last several years,” said Republican Board of Education member Robert Kosienski. “This year, the city manager and the City Council gave us a $520,000 increase. It was the first time in nine years we’re received a substantial increase.”

Kosienski credited the district’s state and national recognition for its ability to receive additional funding through education foundations. State and federal grants range from $7.1 million in Alliance District funding to $18,654 in immigration grant funding. It also received $151,050 in extended day hours program, but not enough to maintain the program at Roger Sherman Elementary School next year.

Quality instruction

Teachers and administrators also received tens of thousands of dollars to attend teacher training, travel and enrichment programs.

“We really want to do right by the kids, to give them quality instruction,” Hanover School Principal Jennifer Kelly said in a district video. “To do that we have to support the teachers.”

Kosienski praised the district’s leadership for overall improvements in the elementary schools, innovation in teaching computer code technology, and investing as much in fine arts as it does in sports.

“The biggest part of the presentation was about music throughout the district,” Kosienski said. “Students who perform an instrument, those skills translate into math, science and analytical thinking. We are known for our music throughout the community as much as sports.”

Access to advanced placement early college courses also increased.

In 2011, 184 students took one of 27 courses compared to 966 students in 2018-2019. Of that amount 532 students were eligible for free or reduced lunch, compared to 40 advanced placement enrollees in 2011. Test participation gains were made across the board in all demographics.

By Mary Ellen Godin, Record-Journal staff