How schools break the grip of poverty

Providing a high-quality education—against the odds—for all students

Meriden, Connecticut, is a struggling, former industrial city, once known for its silver manufacturing, lamp producers, military product development, and automotive component assembly plants.

We were both born there, to parents who had little more than each other and a dream for their children. We were poor. We were the statistic.

Yet, just as we were unleashed from the grip of poverty, so too can millions of other children break free. We chose education as a profession because we wanted to make a difference in the lives of children.

Address the poverty dilemma

Under No Child Left Behind, we saw a tremendous narrowing of curriculum to those things that were assessed. Worse, we saw too many teaching and classroom activities mirror the format of the tests. Unfortunately, teachers in high-need districts had to prepare students for tests in ways that limited their ability to shape instruction based on student need.

The shift to the Common Core gives us an opportunity to hit the reset button on 10 years of practices that were partly ineffective. It allows us to rethink the skill-and-drill practice and the overemphasis on test-prep that have stunted the growth of our students.

We need to adopt a curriculum that is based on thinking and problem-solving, that prepares our children for a world that looks different than the one we live in today, and that helps reverse the achievement disparities in our nation. It makes sense for our kids; it makes sense for our economy.

In-school strategies

In Meriden, our roadway to student-centered learning begins with collapsing academic levels to ensure college and career pathways for all students. We established no-zero grading practices and opened student access in all college preparatory classes. We increased district-provided mobile devices to over 3,000 today, almost one for every three enrolled students, with both high schools operating 1-to-1 programs.

Competency-based learning and personalized learning experiences provide students with voice and choice. With technology as a tool and options on areas of learning, student engagement increased significantly.

By tracking sub-group performance and analyzing student results, we are addressing the disparities that too many of our students face every day.

Retaining highly effective leaders and administrators is crucial to closing learning gaps for all students. Our talent development program consists of robust teacher induction, executive and peer coaching, a leadership academy, in-district college partnerships, and numerous staff development opportunities.

Under our latest initiative, the Meriden Teacher Sharing Success team, tenured teachers who have excelled in multiple measures work with other educators who are looking for support.

Community partnerships

In a community that is 60 percent HispanicÑin which English is a second language for manyÑit was important to take proactive steps to create partnerships with our parents. The bilingual, five- member Family School Liaison team was developed to serve as community ambassadors.

The liaisons also show parents how to access a range of resources for their familiesÑwhether it be tutoring, college planning, immunization information, or after-school activities.

Partnerships with the local Community Health Center, Meriden Health Department, and the Department of Children and Families ensure that our students get access to mental, dental and medical health in our school buildings.

These efforts have improved school climates. Since 2010-11, Meriden Public Schools has experienced the following positive reductions: suspensions down 58 percent; expulsions down 88 percent; and arrests down 77 percent.

Mark D. Benigni is the superintendent of Meriden Public Schools. Miguel A. Cardona is the district’s performance and evaluation specialist.