New commissioner looks for schools that are succeeding

MERIDEN – When unionized teachers in Meriden’s public schools needed more time to examine student test data, they voluntarily added extra classroom time to their schedules to make room for regular weekly data review meetings.

That simple solution, the result of informal talks between the union president and school superintendent, was cited Monday by the state’s top education official as one of the reasons for the success of Thomas Hooker School.

pryor Q&A

Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor, left, talks to third-grade students at Thomas Hooker School in Meriden.


“It’s a perfect example of how a district solves a problem – union and management together,” said state Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor. “You are creating a model for the rest of the state.”

That spirit of teamwork, along with strong leadership and an intense focus on monitoring student progress, have made Hooker stand out, Pryor said.

Pryor, who took over as commissioner last month, stopped at Hooker as one of the first stops on what he calls a “listening tour” to visit schools and meet educators across Connecticut and to look for education strategies that work.

In Connecticut, Pryor oversees a public education system that boasts some of America’s best schools but also has the nation’s largest academic achievement gap separating the poor from the well-to-do. At Hooker, that gap has virtually disappeared over the past six years as test scores among low-income children gradually improved.

Although about half of Hooker’s students come from low-income families and one-third of the student body is not fluent in English, the school regularly posts impressive results on the statewide Connecticut Mastery Test. More than 90 percent of Hooker’s third-graders scored at the proficient level in reading and math last spring, for example, compared with statewide averages of 74 percent in reading and 84 percent in math.

Hooker, along with a school in Old Lyme, tied for the Connecticut Association of Schools’ award as the state’s top elementary school this year. Two years ago, it was named a national Blue Ribbon school by the U.S. Department of Education.

“There are numerous exemplary schools in our state even though there are certainly challenges statewide,” Pryor said after touring Hooker. “There are bright spots, and we want to highlight those and learn from them.”

Monday’s meeting with teachers and administrators provided an early glimpse of some of the themes likely to mark Pryor’s approach as commissioner.

Although he was an unconventional choice for the education post — his most recent job was as deputy mayor in Newark, N.J. — Pryor’s grasp of key education issues was evident as he took notes and asked the Meriden educators about curriculum, teacher training and other matters.

In particular, Pryor asked pointed questions dealing with monitoring student progress: How often do teachers gather data? Does the district work with the state in designing test questions? Do schools use data to diagnose problems for individual students?

Meriden Superintendent of Schools Mark Benigni said teachers regularly review how their students’ growth compares to that of students in other schools, throughout the district and across the state. “We know that these results matter,” he said. “We want to push all our students to their optimum performance.”

Later, Pryor said that Hooker’s focus on data was a key element in its success.

“There is very thoughtful attention being paid to the use of data. … There is concern for reaching further into the data to examine students’ needs beyond the surface level analysis of right and wrong answers on the standardized tests. There’s an interest in deeper diagnosis, which is so important,” he said.

“It’s rare that you find a school these days that’s succeeding at this level that isn’t aiming for such deeper diagnosis. It’s great to see it happening, and it’s the kind of thing that the state can enable.”

Pryor, who arrived in Connecticut with a reputation as a skilled leader able to bring together groups with differing points of view, also praised the union-management relationship in Meriden, citing the example of altering the schedule to create time for the data review meetings.

“It was great to see it in action,” he said. “There is problem-solving on a routine basis and also on a structural long-term basis between the superintendent’s office and the union president’s office. That is terrific to see. It’s essential.”

Hooker’s success has not come without obstacles. The school district’s budget has had no increase for the past two years. The building is aging, and class sizes are edging upward.

“With 29 students, it’s a challenge to get to every single one of them,” said fifth-grade teacher Jacqueline Sapinski. Nevertheless, part of the school’s success is the result of the close bond among staff members, she said.

“It’s definitely a school that is a team,” she said. “I can depend on anyone — the cafeteria worker, the speech therapist — to help me when I need it.”