Meriden — To begin the job of selling his proposed education reforms, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy visited a school Thursday in a district with a young, dynamic superintendent and the challenges of student poverty and limited resources.
Students stared wide-eyed as Malloy swept into classrooms at Benjamin Franklin Elementary, trailed by a retinue that included Superintendent Mark Benigni, Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman and the state commissioner of education, Stefan Pryor.
“How’s everybody doing?” Malloy asked students in Lisa Davies’ sunny second-grade class.
In a first-grade class, students peppered him with so many questions that it took on the vibe of a press conference in miniature, complete with the governor’s way of cutting off proceedings at the Capitol. “Last question,” he said.
Meriden is one of the underperforming districts that Malloy’s reforms would help with supplemental financial aid, always welcome in a small, industrial city that ranks 9th in student poverty and 120th in per-pupil spending in Connecticut.
Pryor is a fan of Benigni, an educator who understands politics: Benigni was the city’s independently elected mayor from 2001 to 2008, when he resigned to become a high school principal in Cromwell. He’s been superintendent since July 2010.
Franklin is a well-kept brick building off West Main Street, a threadbare commercial thoroughfare where neighboring businesses include two pawn shops. Malloy said the school has early-intervention programs that should be replicated elsewhere.
“We know that there are strategies that work, and we know that those strategies are not necessarily being replicated system to system or even within the same system, building to building,” Malloy said. “So it’s important that we celebrate accomplishment, that we hold up examples of what can work.”
The school has a program for early-childhood education, starting at age 3. Next fall, it will offer all-day kindergarten.
Autistic children are taught at Franklin in a small, first-floor classroom, one that Malloy ducked into by himself after a teacher warned that the students would find a tour group disruptive. His guide was the school’s principal, Dan Coffey.
“They start with breathing exercises. They do yoga,” Coffey told the governor, as they left the classroom and walked ahead of the others.
Malloy, who had severe learning disabilities as a child, nodded and said in a low voice, “Lots of tactile … “
The rest of their conversation was out of earshot.
The tour was built around public policy and public relations. Malloy took time in each class to talk to teachers about their day and their school, but it also was a press event that concluded with a press conference in the school library.
He delivered his State of the State address on Wednesday. On Thursday, it was time to go out on the road, reinforcing a message delivered in Hartford that 2012 is the year of education reform in Connecticut.
The Malloy administration methodically rolled out a series of proposals, including higher standards for teachers, better means of evaluating students and schools, and supplemental financing for poorer districts.
But it saved tenure reform for his State of the State, which elevated the issue above Malloy’s other education reforms. On Thursday, he and Pryor said tenure was part of a larger package of reforms, no more or less.
“It is a package which is comprehensive in nature, I think much more comprehensive than folks thought it was going to be,” Malloy said. “It talks about assets. It does talk about tenure.”
“These elements are all interdependent, and they are all important in carrying out the reforms,” Pryor said.
After presenting tenure reform as a politically charged proposal Wednesday, Malloy offered it as commonplace and overdue Thursday.
“I’m talking about tenure. AFT is talking aobut tenure. CEA is talking about tenure. The nationals are talking about tenure,”Malloy said, referring to state teacher unions. “Thirty-one states have renovated tenure statutes since 2009. Massachusetts has done it. New York has done it. Rhode Island has done it. It’s time for Connecticut to do it.”
Education reform is an issue with legs, one that crosses the political spectrum. Joining him in the school library was House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, and Sen. Leonard Suzio, R-Meriden, whose politics are polar opposites.
Each praised the governor.
“The biggest thing is making education the biggest issue of the year,” said Donovan, a former community organizer in Meriden who is running for Congress. “It’s very welcome.”
Suzio is a former school board member who won a special election last year, backed by a coalition of conservatives, including Tea Party activists. He often has clashed with Malloy.
“His broad-stroke approach to it, I agree with in principle,” Suzio said. He smiled and added, “I’ll support him when he is right, and I think he is right here.”
On Thursday, Suzio made sure to have a photographer ready as he shook hands with Malloy in the school. Typically a foe of state spending, Suzio said the governor’s priority on education is well-placed, and Meriden desperately needs the supplemental state aid.
“This is badly needed money,” Suzio said.