Each day, more than 8,000 students attend Meriden's 12 schools looking for opportunities for a better life. Our goal is to give each and every student the knowledge and skills to be successful in college, career and beyond. But simple knowledge alone is not enough — we also want to give our students a well-rounded education. We want to expose our students to a wide array of activities, classes and open their minds to new ways of thinking.
In today's 6.5-hour day and 180-day school year, however, having it all is not possible. That's why, more than two years ago, our school district began a collaborative process with our teachers union to determine if and how we might expand learning time for our students. We decided to begin with Pulaski Elementary School, and an engaging dialogue quickly emerged.
Discussing what we would add to the school day, we all agreed that to be successful, happy and engaged citizens, our students needed more than what was possible in the current school schedule. We also agreed that we, as a school community, were committed to making it happen.
The redesigned school day that resulted has been transformative. Our students now have more time with their academics and enrichment. They are personalizing their learning experiences and now have a voice in their school programs. Teachers have more time to plan with their colleagues and to look at data to understand better where students grasp material and where individualized supports might be needed.
We would not have been able to go through the redesign process if we did not have the strong support of outside partners. The American Federation of Teachers Innovation Fund enabled us to begin our original planning on expanded time. The initial support from our teachers union led to our participation in a five-state initiative — called the TIME Collaborative — which was launched last year by the National Center on Time & Learning and the Ford Foundation. The TIME Collaborative has provided us with deep support as our schools go through the redesign and implementation.
Two elementary schools — Casimir Pulaski and John Barry — are now implementing 100 minutes more learning each day, which means an additional 300 hours this school year. After only one year of experience at Pulaski, the results are inconclusive but, so far, positive. Attendance at Pulaski has improved, students report teachers are fair, caring and motivate them to learn, and the school achieved the best year to year improvement in reading in the entire system.
The Roger Sherman and Israel Putnam elementary schools are beginning to plan for expanded days as part of the collaborative as well. In addition, partners across the community, including the YMCA, Boys & Girls Club, United Way of Meriden and Wallingford, and Women and Family Center, have all been part of our effort to provide new and different opportunities to students during our expanded school day.
Having additional time for academics and enrichment will make the difference for our students and help us begin to close achievement and opportunity gaps. Simply adding time focused on either academics or enrichments is not enough; we need to do both. Expanded learning time is a strategy so powerful that we must add time to the schedule throughout the district, but this is not something we can do overnight. We must do so thoughtfully over time and in collaboration with our teachers, parents and community members to ensure that the schedules reflect the needs of students and teachers.
Our students enter school each day ready to learn and engage. It is our job to teach them the knowledge and skills from all content areas — whether it's literacy, geography, dance or technology — that prepares them to leave us and enter the world as well-rounded and educated citizens. We know that the school schedule of yesterday does not allow us to do this; we must create school models for the 21st century to meet the demands of today's economy and world. And we must start now because we don't have a minute to spare.
Mark Benigni is superintendent of the Meriden Public Schools.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun