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Schools That Work
Teacher Collaboration

Want to Improve a District? Let Teachers Lead the Way

A Connecticut superintendent put teachers and students at the forefront of all decisions and transformed a district.

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When Mark Benigni took the reins as superintendent of Connecticut’s Meriden Public Schools district in 2010, the central office was half empty—the superintendent, assistant superintendent, and personnel director had recently retired. While there was hope for change and innovation, there was no plan for how to get there.

“We were kind of being stale—doing the same thing over and over and wondering why the kids weren’t buying in,” Benigni said.

He could sense the teachers and students felt it too.

With a limited budget, Benigni started small—providing dedicated time each day for teachers to talk to each other, hoping to build trust that would support reinvention. But something bigger happened: Teachers started identifying and driving improvements across the district.

This shift away from top-down innovation made all the difference, Benigni said: “Collaboration is about recognizing that the best ideas don’t always come from the superintendent’s desk. Sometimes it comes from our students or our families, and many times it comes from a great teaching staff.”

Taking direction from his staff, Benigni targeted key areas for investment: enhancing professional development for teachers and administrators; focusing on an individualized, student-centered teaching approach, backed by new one-to-one technology initiatives; and making an ongoing commitment to collaboration between administrators and teachers.

Today, the diverse 8,000-student district is humming with innovation. Throughout Meriden’s 12 schools, teachers put students at the center of their instruction, directing them to take the lead in their learning process. One-to-one technology is available in most schools, and students are encouraged to use it anywhere to drive their learning. And staff are equipped to ensure that every child, regardless of needs and abilities, is empowered to achieve to his or her potential.

Meriden is seeing results. Suspensions are down 86 percent and expulsions are down more than 95 percent since 2011. Teachers report a more positive working environment district-wide. And in 2016, Meriden reported some of the highest test scores in its history, and was honored with a National School Board Association Magna Award and recognized as a District of Distinction by District Administration magazine.

With their safety goggles on and knowledge of chemistry in hand, twelfth-grade students in Brenda Parness’s class at Maloney High School are working to identify six white mystery compounds. One student reminds her group to test whether the powdery substances are soluble and to check density and conductivity.

As they work, Parness moves around the room, listening to questions but providing minimal feedback. At the school, teachers take on the role of guides, encouraging students to think outside the box and become active problem solvers rather than passive note-takers.

The student-centered approach to instruction was identified during Meriden’s teacher-to-teacher collaboration as a way to give students more “voice and choice” in their learning. While the shift hasn’t been easy, it’s helped increase student engagement and decrease time off task as students take more ownership of their work, according to teachers, including English language arts teacher Patrick Good.

“For 17 or 18 years, it was, ‘What am I going to tell the kids today?’ And now it’s, ‘What am I going to have the kids show me today?’” Good said of the new student-focused approach. “The person who is blown away by that is me.”

“Once upon a time there was a castle,” a first-grade student types on a Google Chromebook.

“Who lives in the castle?” prods one of two fifth-grade students who look on supportively during a lesson in the weekly “tech buddies” program at John Barry Elementary School.

The program, which pairs older and younger students for technological training, grew out of a need to improve students’ skills after the school went one-to-one—part of Meriden’s larger push to modernize teaching and learning district-wide after Benigni came on board.

In one session, fifth-grade students taught their first-grade buddies how to use Google Slides and learning apps like Padlet, Osmo, and myON to create interactive presentations on reptiles.

Partnering teachers meet once a week to plan sessions centered around what younger students need to learn to do independently. They say the program is empowering their students, improving confidence and social and emotional skills. Though the older students say teaching can be challenging, they also say it’s worth it.

Walking into the “sensory room” at Hanover Elementary School, you may see a child being pushed in a large swing or crashing into soft floor mats. Another may hit a punching bag or test his or her balance on a walking path.

For students with autism in particular, the sensory room has become a safe space to get grounded and release emotions before they go back to class to learn.

In 2013, the school transformed the room as part of a larger effort to improve Meriden’s special education services after Benigni realized that too many special needs students were being sent outside the district to get the care they needed. In Meriden, roughly 14 percent of the student body has an Individualized Education Program (IEP).

Students with autism attend daily 30-minute “sensory breaks” as well as a weekly physical therapy session, learning breathing exercises and calming movements that help them regulate behavior and emotions. According to teachers, the sensory room is the most important piece of their students’ day, and has increased time on task and decreased negative behaviors.

“Research shows if the students are in the right mindset and they get their sensory needs met, they are going to be much better learners,” said special education teacher Cheryl Cunningham. “After the sensory room, they’re able to focus more and learn easier, and they retain more information.”

Walking through Meriden’s schools, it’s hard to believe there was a time when the district was stuck in the past. The profound changes of the past several years are apparent to teachers and students alike.

It was new leadership—and the resulting shift to teacher-driven innovation—that made Meriden’s reinvention possible, according to one principal, who says educators now feel confident about sharing their thoughts and trying new things.

“Leadership is about making people comfortable to take risks,” said Benigni, who was recognized as a Leader to Learn From by Education Week. “If you’re not willing to fail, you’re never going to be innovative, and you’re not going to be as successful as you should be.”

Special Thanks: Edutopia wishes to thank The Nellie Mae Education Foundation for helping us discover Meriden Public Schools.
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Mark D. Benigni's picture
Mark D. Benigni
Superintendent of Schools

Thank you so much Dr. Lemoine! I am fortunate to have a supportive BOE, as well as a talented team that supports innovation. We can not be afraid to take risks if we are going to achieve success for our students. Best, mark

Daisy's picture

Thank you very much for this article!
I am currently teaching English at a vocational school in the Netherlands, and I am looking into ways of making my classroom more collaborative and less teacher-led.

I do run into some problems: our students are not used to this, get off task easily, and are difficult to motivate. How do you deal with reluctant learners who do struggle to work independently?
Another problem is lesson material. Implementing this in my classroom would mean rewriting the materials, but I have no idea where to start or how to set this up. Has anyone got an article or a book to recommend? Mind you, this is vocational teaching and applying English to a subject which doesn't use English at all is difficult. Though I would love to, teaching Sonnets will not be part of my curriculum.

I would be eternally grateful if there would be someone in a similar school who started working like that who could contact me. I have so many questions and would love to get in touch!

ECI's picture

Working in a large district that has several high priority schools I see a need for change. There has to be some way to make improvements and maybe what has always been done just isn't working anymore. Your blog brought to life the fact that many districts around the United States need change, and that some, like yours, have actually enacted change. Your work is powerful because you had the confidence to step back from making all of the decisions and decided that your teachers and your students have wonderful ideas for change. Your district has made changes that affect your elementary students to your high school students. I work as an Early Childhood Interventionist (ECI) as part of a grant funded position that will only be a part of the district for a total of 5 years, with 3 years remaining. Our elementary building has built in 20 minutes, 4 times each week for the staff to collaborate. This has become a sacred time where staff works together to share honest opinions, concerns, and celebrations. Even if change only happens in our school building, it could be one ripple that begins to affect the district in a positive way.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Hi Daisy! I don't teach in a similar kind of school, but I have been teaching English for many years. I know that the best way to engage reluctant learners in reading and writing is to let them read and write what interests them the most. Could they write about the vocation that they are studying? Maybe prepare classroom newspapers or blogs on the work they are doing? Or could they read and write biographies about people related to the vocation? If the vocation itself doesn't interest them, could they write on whatever topic they are interested in? My students learn to write academic essays by creating magazines on any topic that interests them. This could become a collaborative project if they worked in groups to publish a magazine (or website) on a shared interest. Here is a book that is a great resource for building a collaborative, student-led classroom: https://www.amazon.com/Learn-Like-Pirate-Students-Collaborate/dp/098821766X

Mark D. Benigni's picture
Mark D. Benigni
Superintendent of Schools

Thank you for reading our article and sharing your post with us. Teaching students to take responsibility for their learning does take time. Our students didn't embrace it immediately. They were used to having information shared with them and were more passive learners. You can start by giving them choice in their assignments and sharing with them options of how they can demonstrate mastery - a video, a blog post, a 2 min play... Give options within the assignment. For example, all students can read an article and then based on student interest, they can explore a path of interest through materials shared with them and resources they discover on their own. Teachers can ask open-ended questions and ask students to make connections to everyday life. They CAN do it! http://studentsatthecenterhub.org/ has great ideas to get started. Good luck on your journey and please feel free to email. Best, mark

Mark D. Benigni's picture
Mark D. Benigni
Superintendent of Schools

Thank you for reading our article and embracing change. Open communication is key to any change initiative. We have round-table meetings at all levels, including monthly Central Office meetings with our union leaders. Grade level teachers in ELA and Math also meet monthly to share what works, and what needs to be changed. This provides the essential voice from the classroom. Our high schools utilize weekly PLC time to discuss climate and culture, blended learning, academic indicators, as well as other issues that impact the building. Staff then reports back to their colleagues about changes that will improve the educational environment for students and staff. Staff buy-in is critical. Garnering ideas and support from our teachers requires us to give them voice and choice in their learning and the direction of our district. So, start with small changes, forget about "the box" that binds innovation, and give all stakeholders voice. All the best, mark

Andrew Weber's picture

What a wonderfully inspiring success story, as I am a graduate student who is currently studying teacher leadership! I find the data from Connecticut's Meriden Public Schools district to be good reassurance that I have chosen the right avenue to further my education. I think the result of shifting the decision-making power to the teacher leaders speaks for itself, and it is my hope that more school districts will look to duplicate their results. I look forward to working collaboratively within a district that is committed to incorporating teacher leaders. If utilized correctly, I believe that my fellow teacher leaders and I can bring innovations that will benefit all students.

Mark D. Benigni's picture
Mark D. Benigni
Superintendent of Schools

Thank you so much Andrew! I hope your graduate studies are going well... As a district we embrace innovation and collaboration. We know that when our teachers learn- our students learn as well. Best, mark

Melissa Chandler's picture

This is a fantastic example of the power of teacher leadership! There is great collaboration between teachers, administrators, and students and their families. The reduction in suspensions and expulsions is jaw dropping. I advocate for a student-centered instructional approach. As an arts educator, I believe we need a holistic approach to education and the social emotional learning through peer teaching is a great way to accomplish that. This sparks new ideas for me for the upcoming school year. I might have my older music students tutor the younger students. I want to incorporate the one to one technology, which will be available for the first time this year, into my music class to engage more students more of the time. It will also help students with the creativity standards because the technology can support the music notation that often is a roadblock for them. Hopefully my risk taking will pay off with some improved teaching and learning for my students!

Samer's picture

I love your energy and enthusiasm, Melissa. It sounds like you have a great year ahead of you.

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