Then-Principal of Meridens Hanover School Miguel Cardona poses for a photo with a student on the last day of school in 2018. Johnathon Henninger / Meriden Record Journal

Last month, the Biden Administration took a historic step by confirming Miguel Cardona as the new U.S. Secretary of Education. Secretary Cardona enters the position with a distinguished track record as an educator, leader, and advocate for the students who are too often left behind by the systemic inequities in our education system.

Mark Benigni

He is also our former colleague in Meriden’s public schools. And our work together at the local level may help inform the practices and policies that help to transform public education at the national level.

Over the past decade, Meriden Public Schools — where Secretary Cardona served as assistant superintendent — has become a unique laboratory for new ideas that push the boundaries of what is possible in public education. And many of those ideas have paid off. In the last ten years, we’ve seen a 20 percent increase in students reading at or above grade level by third grade. Chronic absenteeism and suspensions have been reduced substantially, and our high school graduation rates have increased by more than 15 percent.

Perhaps most importantly of all, 95 percent of students in the district report that they feel a sense of belonging in Meriden Public Schools.

We’re proud of our progress, and appreciate the support of our board of education, though in many ways the work is only just beginning. But we’ve also had an opportunity to reflect on how we got here, and what we’ve learned along the way. How can these experiences support the new Secretary as he works to increase equity in schools across America?

Here are three lessons learned from Meriden that we hope can point the way for educators and policymakers alike.

Prioritize equity. Three-quarters of students in Meriden are students of color. At the core of all our work is a deep commitment to proactively fighting systemic racism in all its forms. That means implementing two kinds of policies and practices: those that explicitly combat racism and unconscious bias, and those that promote equity and a sense of belonging.

In the first category, we’ve initiated restorative practices and youth dialogues, which are focused on support and learning as opposed to punishment. These programs help students own their behavior, and encourage them to work with their peers to regulate behaviors and exhibit positive interactions. In the second, we’ve implemented “no zero” grading practices, transitioned from traditional to student-centered practices that give students more choice and ownership over their learning, and reallocated resources to provide Chromebooks and mobile hotspots for families lacking devices and internet access.

Lead with data. As a society, we’re awash in data, but it’s often hard to sort through all the information to understand how to take action. Our work is rooted in the belief that when used appropriately, data can help inform better decision-making.

What does that look like in practice? Meriden shares anonymous and secure data on everything from academic progress to behavior to attendance with teachers, school leaders, and other stakeholders. By examining patterns in the data, organized by specific subgroups (like English Learners, or students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals), we’re able to better understand when and how to intervene. Our data has helped Meriden implement tutoring and credit recovery programs, after-school enrichment activities, and direct outreach to families — all based on those who need the most support.

Create pathways to success. For all of our students, we know that finishing high school is not the end of the learning journey. Whether they go on to a four-year college, a two-year school, or directly into the workforce, we want to make sure that their experience in Meriden Public Schools prepares them for life’s next journey.

Through partnerships with local higher education institutions like the University of Connecticut and Middlesex Community College, we’re helping students gain critical experience in college classrooms before they graduate. We’ve also joined forces with the National Education Equity Lab, a pioneering nonprofit that is rethinking the intersection of high school and college. Meriden students can now access credit-bearing courses from top universities like Harvard and Howard, taught by actual professors, that build not just college-going aspiration — but also the academic skills to succeed in higher education and beyond. Ninety-three percent of Meriden students who completed the course passed, receiving widely transferable college credits.

It bears repeating that all this work is just scratching the surface — and we’ve only just begun addressing the impact of the many massive, structural challenges that face the U.S. education system. We’re grateful for the support of organizations both local and national, like the Wallace  Foundation, Barr Foundation, and Dalio Foundation RISE Network, that have helped us come this far.

As the country begins its slow recovery from the pandemic, there’s plenty more in store for the students, families, teachers, and administrators of Meriden Public Schools — from new college credit-bearing classes to partnerships aimed at helping students pursue careers in the trades. We hope our progress encourages other districts to look at education differently and support innovation, equity, and success for all students.

Mark Benigni is the Superintendent of the Meriden Public Schools.

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