Sunday, March 30, 2014

Learning on the East Coast

Last week I had the opportunity to visit Meriden Public Schools in Connecticut with four other administrators from my school district.  There is a lot of pride in this town and school community.  I don't know if I have ever felt more welcomed anywhere in my life.  Dr. Mark Benigni and his staff pulled out all the stops on this trip by providing us with welcoming gifts, fantastic, unbelievable meals, comprehensive plans for every minute of each day, excellent resources to take home, and even provided us with world famous "steamed cheeseburgers."  This trip was full of learning opportunities as we were able to see a successful school district that is intentional with every move.  The key learnings from my trip have been captured below.


Expanded Learning Time
Two of Meriden's elementary schools (Casimir Pulaski) and (John Barry) have implemented 100 minutes of additional learning time each day equaling over 40 additional school days per year.  This time is used for activities that enhance the regular curriculum and provide students with additional opportunities to find their passions within school.  "Global competitiveness is not something our students will attain with six-hour school days, nine months of the year.  Expanded Learning Time allows schools to provide a more well-rounded education that addresses the whole child through enrichment in arts, music, drama, physical education, and more"  (National Center on Time and Learning).  As I observed this additional time in the morning from 7:30-9:00, I saw students learning French, participating in fitness circuits in the gymnasium, learning to play guitar, building math skills with ST Math, learning how to draw cartoon characters, knitting, and writing creatively.  These students were excited, energetic, and were eager to share about how much fun they were having.  What a great opportunity for the students and staff members at these two elementary schools. Not only were students able to discover passions, but they were also able to develop deeper relationships with the adults in the schools.  Meriden is on to something with the extended learning time; it is awesome.


Meriden Assessment System
One of the most interesting parts of the visit was listening to Dr. Alvin Larson, as he explained the assessment and error analysis system that is used in Meriden Public Schools.  These assessments have been created by Al and other district employees and have changed the framework of assessment by producing timely and actionable data for teachers.  These assessments are designed to identify typical student misconceptions allowing teachers to address the needs of their students quickly and accurately.  We have used item analysis in our district for a number of years to guide future decision making; however, the error analysis framework takes this thought to the next level and really provides actionable data.  I thought we had a lot of data in our district until I saw what Meriden Public Schools are doing on a daily basis.  I was thoroughly impressed, and could write a seperate post strictly on this topic.

Bring Your Own Device (BYOD)/Online Learning
Both of Meriden's high schools have implemented a bring your own device technology model and have provided tablets to a number of their students.  They have embraced the idea of anytime learning that is so important in my life.  Students have opportunities to use online tools while they are at school and are able to access educational resources in the comfort of their own homes as well.  Technology is simply embedded into the daily instruction of the teachers that I observed at Platt High School.  Students were highly engaged, and given the freedom to utilize the tools that they had in front of them to transform their learning experience.

Talent Development
Meriden has made a strong effort to build capacity within their teachers and leaders in the district.  Some of the components of talent development that I was able to observe and discuss included: New Teacher Induction, Executive Coaching, Peer Coaching, Leadership Academy, and Staff Professional Development. Executive Coaching is a program for new principals provided by the Connecticut Center for School Change which provides an executive coach to assist in the transition as the building's instructional leader.  This is a great opportunity for new principals entering the role to ensure success, alignment, and early wins in their new role.  Peer Coaching provides teachers and administrators with training in a true peer-to-peer coaching model developed in collaboration with the National School Reform Faculty.  Participants are provided with training to facilitate deeper conversations designed to lead to improvement.  As I listened to the talent development presentation, I could not help but get excited about some of the ideas that we could implement to increase the capacity with our staff at Western Dubuque.  We recently received the Teacher Leadership and Compensation Grant from the Iowa Department of Education.  The money received from this grant will allow us to implement some of these ideas which will allow us to continue our strong improvement efforts within our district.  


Branding Matters
It did not take me very long to realize that Meriden Public Schools have created a very strong brand presence.  As we arrived to our hotel, we were greeted by the receptionist with gift bags full of items displaying Meriden's motto: "Pride In All We Do."  I lost count of how many times I saw this motto and logo around the district.  As I observed and had discussions with many staff members it did not take me long to realize that these people have a common purpose and know precisely what they are all about.  It is evident that Meriden Public Schools have worked hard to create a culture of pride and excellence and have capitalized on these values through their brand.



Our visit to Meriden, Connecticut was enjoyable and full of learning from start to finish.  I'm so grateful for the opportunity, and cannot wait to get moving on some of our own improvement efforts.  As I boarded the plane heading home, I kept thinking about the framed poster that I saw in the Board of Education meeting room in Meriden.  It read, "How will the decisions we make impact our students?"  As educators, we are faced with hundreds, if not thousands of decisions each day.  When we are making decisions, particularly difficult ones, we must always have this quote in the front our our minds.  After all, we are in this business for the kids, and it is our responsibility to serve them the best way that we know how.

   

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