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When Our Teachers Learn, Our Students Learn

Our guest authors today are Mark D. Benigni, Ed. D., Superintendent of the Meriden Public Schools in Connecticut and co-chairperson of the Connecticut Association of Urban Superintendents, as well as Erin Benham, President of the Meriden Federation of Teachers and a member of the Connecticut State Department of Education Board of Directors. The authors seek to understand how teacher learning improves student learning outcomes. 

Our students’ success and ability to graduate college and career ready from our public schools must be society's primary educational objective. The challenge lies in how we create neighborhood public schools where student learning and teacher learning are valued and supported. How do we assure our students' and staff's satisfaction and growth? And, in essence, how do we create schools where students and staff want to be?

Around the country, some districts are opting for market-based reforms such as privately supported charter schools or online school options. In Meriden we took a different approach and decided to collaborate as a springboard for innovation and improvement. The school district and teachers' union have been strong partners for almost seven years. Such trust and partnership has made possible the reforms that will be described in the rest of this post.

Collaboration facilitated development of a weekly early-release day for Professional Learning Communities to meet. During this time, teachers review individual student academic data with their data teams. However, the paucity of non-academic information about students emerged as an important area of improvement. We launched a three-phased approach to address climate and culture in our schools. Our climate suite includes: a School Climate Survey completed by students, staff, and families; a Getting to Know You Survey completed by students in the spring, with results shared in the fall with receiving teachers; and a MPS Cares online portal for students to request assistance and support.

With these tools, staff are able to intervene in an informed, proactive, and preventive manner. A unique feature of our School Climate Survey is the inclusion of trigger questions, which immediately alert school staff when a student's response indicates that the student needs support. The Getting to Know You Survey provides teachers with information about their students' interest areas, desires, and challenges—teachers are better able to personalize teaching and empathize with students. 

Collaboration laid the foundation for creation of student-centered learning environments and the integration of technology. Meriden Public Schools is a model for urban school districts, leading the way with Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), one-to-one at both middle and high schools, one-to-one across all fifth grades, one-to-one at our most economically challenged elementary school, and inclusion of digital content in core curriculum, with over 7,000 devices issued to students. Our "Take Charge of Your Learning" campaign is another exciting joint initiative. Staff and students pledge to be life-long learners and embrace the district's digital transformation. Teacher leaders facilitate "I'm Charged" classrooms serving as model teaching sites. 

Student voice, greater choice, real-world experience, and anytime, anywhere learning are the building blocks of student-centered environments. We created a Personalized Learning Experience (PLE) program for students to design their own credit-earning learning experiences outside the traditional classroom setting, anytime, anywhere. Students are encouraged to pursue an area of interest, special talent, or investigate a potential career option. Grant funding provides at each high school two part-time PLE Coordinators, who devote two periods a day supporting students with individualized programs. The PLE Coordinators build awareness and community support by recruiting businesses and community agencies to provide real-world experiences for student placements. The Board encourages community support by recognizing agencies with a plaque at monthly board meetings.

Supporting these shifts, our Board of Education revised its policy, adopting four new goals:

  • Provide a student-centered learning environment to meet the individual needs of each student;
  • Provide an educational program that will lead to college and career readiness;
  • Provide a technology- and resource-rich learning environment; and
  • Provide opportunities for learning outside the traditional classroom.

The Board was formally recognized for its innovative thinking by receiving a Magna Award from the National School Boards Association, marking the first time in 15 years that a Connecticut Board of Education received a first place award. In addition to embracing student learning, the Board recognized the valuable connection between teacher professional growth and student learning. They have supported numerous positions to provide embedded, ongoing professional development in the classroom.

To support our transition to a student-centered learning district, we knew that professional development for teachers had to be more than just the traditional professional development program. Teachers needed professional learning opportunities that were self-selected, personalized, engaging, job embedded, and offered outside the teaching day. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), working with the Meriden Federation of Teachers (MFT), selected the district to participate in the Common Core Training of Teacher Leaders. This "Train the Trainers" program is designed to help teachers successfully make the transition to the rigors of the Common Core.  With Meriden teachers as trainers, the district was able to implement successfully the Common Core State Standards and to have a cadre of its own teachers providing ongoing support. Continued support from the AFT and MFT, and visits by Randi Weingarten, President of AFT, have strengthened our ongoing collaboration to the betterment of education for all students. 

Recognizing our history of collaboration and groundwork for innovation, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation awarded a grant to the Meriden Public Schools to further support high school reform.  With this funding, we created a student-centered learning support teams. In addition to the Director of Curriculum and Instructional Technology, our team includes a Blended Learning Supervisor, Student-Centered Learning Coaches for core subjects, Technology Integration Specialists, and Personalized Learning Experience Coordinators. This team’s mission is to support teachers in implementing student-centered learning. Team members are Meriden teachers who have developed positive relationships with colleagues. Home based in the schools, coaches and technology integration specialists assure timely feedback and genuine support.  This embedded professional development is well-received by teachers, who welcome additional instructional support. Meriden teachers play an integral role in the development, planning, and implementation of student-centered learning.

Teacher-selected professional development opportunities, coupled with differentiated professional development for teachers, have opened the doors to creative management-union sponsored talent development options. We were determined to offer authentic learning options for our staff, which include:  a New Teacher Induction Program; Peer Coaching; Model Teachers Sharing Success; Leadership Academy; and Learning Walks. New teachers are supported with a year-long professional development program, including workshops with staff, book studies, and online forums. Our first talent development initiative for experienced staff was a true peer-to-peer coaching program.  With training from the National School Reform Faculty, a cohort of teachers was paired with another teacher in their grade level.  Both teachers spent time observing in each other's classroom and providing non-judgmental feedback and reflection.  The Meriden Teachers Sharing Success (MTSS) team is a teacher-led professional learning opportunity for all Meriden teachers.  Recognizing that teachers learn best from observing and discussing effective strategies with each other, teachers are encouraged to visit the classrooms of MTSS colleagues who have demonstrated effective teaching practices and exceptional student growth.

We knew that, for educational initiatives to flourish, we need teacher leaders who embrace change and recognize the global needs of our students. In partnership with the union, the Meriden Public Schools' Leadership Academy was born. The Connecticut Association of Schools and our administrators provide year-long leadership learning to approximately 20 teachers a year chosen through a union-management selection process.

With barriers to classroom isolation overcome, we began our Learning Walk protocols.  A team of teachers and administrators visit classrooms together using a rubric to reflect and guide a school's continuous improvement efforts.  By empowering educators to contribute to the collective growth of our district, we are building capacity and shared ownership meaningfully and purposefully.

We have brought the community into our high schools to see firsthand the district’s student-centered learning and digital transformation. Web Wednesdays is an intergenerational activity that occurs monthly. Tech-savvy students partner with members from the senior center, who are looking for technology guidance in the use of cell phones, e-mail and internet.  Community Learning Walks, led by teachers, bring business leaders, community advocates, non-profit agency directors, and parents into classrooms to view student-centered learning in action. One of our talented teachers proposed this highly successful concept. Teachers are comfortable with community members, teachers from other districts, Superintendents' Network and government officials visiting their classrooms. Again, we have broken down the barriers of classroom isolation and encouraged collaboration at all levels.

Our efforts at collaboration and innovation have clearly contributed to the success of our district. Graduation rates went up by 4.5 percentage points since the 2011-2012 school year. Meriden outperformed Connecticut’s average growth on the SBAC in both English Language Arts and Mathematics: in ELA, Meriden 3.9 percentage points vs. 3.3 points statewide; in Math, Meriden 7.1 points vs. 3.3 points statewide. All of our schools outperformed the national average for growth on the STAR Literacy and Reading Assessments.  Also, more students demonstrated college and career readiness on the PSAT than ever before.  Since 2010-11 the district has seen outstanding declines in suspensions (down 62 percent), expulsions (down 89 percent), and school-based arrests (down 86 percent). And, finally, attendance data from last year show a steep decline in chronic absenteeism, with 225 students who had formerly been chronically absent now attending school – see more here.

We know that when our teachers learn . . . our students learn.  Together, we are taking charge of learning and getting positive results.

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