Gov. Dannel P. Malloy lauded Meriden's recent decision to provide universal all-day kindergarten next year and other early-intervention efforts Thursday morning at — efforts that coincide with the dramatic education reform package he outlined in his "State of the State" speech just the day before.
"Meriden's commitment to young children, particularly in going to a full-day kindergarten, I think is very impressive," Malloy said to reporters at the school.
The governor, Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman and Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor toured classes at Franklin with a cadre of local, state, and school officals Thursday — part of the Malloy Administration's effort to underscore the governor's multi-pronged education package. This includes, among a variety of reforms, proposed changes to teacher evaluation and tenure, and state funding to schools.
Franklin is the second school Malloy has visited in Meriden in the year he's been governor, .
One of the items the administration rolled out Wednesday was $40 million more state funding for 30 of the lowest-performing districts in the state, called "Alliance Districts."
Meriden is one of the new Alliance Districts. The designation gives Meriden Public Schools an opportunity to gain an extra $1.7 million in "ECS" or Educational Cost Sharing dollars. Getting the money is contingent upon the district planning and instituting reforms.
"This is a strategy to concentrate on the districts that need our help the most, and to hold them accountable for it," Malloy said. "I'm particularly happy to hear how the superintendent thinks that money should be spent, and hearing support for the concept of tying additional money to the engagement of winning strategies," he said of his discussions with Meriden Superintendent Mark Benigni during the tour.
The Governor's Office is suggesting Alliance Districts plan "ambitious innovations and deeper reforms" in areas like the coordination of early childhood education services, extended school days and years, and creating career ladders for school personnel, according to a Malloy administration press release.
Benigni said the added funding would allow Meriden to keep programs and staff that already work well — like intervention staff, a literacy specialist, math coaches, and a science facilitator — but were in danger of being cut because of funding issues. (Click above right for a video featuring Malloy, Benigni and other school officials discussing ECS funding.)
"Some of the things we know that are helping our students learn at higher levels, that we were afraid we might lose in next year's budget, this funding could hopefully keep some of those things in place and allow us to continue our growth and success," Benigni said.
Malloy celebrated some of those programs Thursday. In one of the rooms he visited, a class of children with autism was receiving occupational therapy.
"The intervention strategies that are being deployed at this school, whether it's in respect to children who have some form of disability or those children who simply are a little bit behind others, to see the level of intervention at very young ages is very encouraging," Malloy said.
The added funds, should Meriden get them, wouldn't ensure the district doesn't close an elementary school next year — a move the Board of Education has discussed if it receives no budget increase for a fourth year from the city in the 2012-13 fiscal year — but makes it less likely, according to the superintendent.
"This puts us closer to being able to make sure that our eight elementary schools remain open and in operation," Benigni said. "But there's still a significant budget gap that we're going to need to address, but this was very positive news for us."
The added ECS dollars should not take the place of municipal funding, Malloy said, but go directly to reforms.
Reporters pressed Malloy on his stated plans to change teacher tenure practices in Connecticut in an effort to weed out ineffective teachers. The governor has proposed making it harder for teachers to get tenure, making them continually reapply for it, and taking teacher and peer reviews into account when making teacher evaluations.
"I'd be willing to bet that if you survey teachers in a building, 90 percent agree with who the successful teachers in the building are and who the unsuccessful teachers are," Malloy said. "We've got to make it easier to move (the unsuccessful) people out of teaching and into other careers that presumably they'll find more rewarding."
Tenure is a sensitive issue for teachers and teachers' unions. Asked about the governor's remarks, Meriden Federation of Teachers President Erin Benham said she thought the Governor had good points, but is still awaiting more details of the whole proposal before she'd give support to any plan. (Click above right for a video featuring Malloy and Benham discussing tenure reform.)
"If you ask teachers, sure they know, they know the good teachers, and they know there needs to be accountability," Benham said. "We all know, that's why we teach, we want our students to learn."