Elizabeth Williamson, Northeast Regional Communications Director for the U.S. Department of Education, toured two Meriden elementary schools Thursday and learned about numerous innovative school improvement initiatives taking place in the district. She was accompanied by Olga Pirela, Director of Communications and Outreach for the New England Region.
“We’re trying to make what’s happening here in Meriden happen in the rest of the country,” Williamson told a gathering of city and state government and school officials, parents and community organizers at a roundtable discussion at Roger Sherman Elementary School Thursday morning.
Williamson and Pirela came to Meriden at the invitation of Meriden Children First, a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting the healthy development of the city’s children.
Their visit began at Hanover Elementary School, recently named a Connecticut top ten performer because of its CMT score improvements. There, school Superintendent Dr. Mark Benigni outlined efforts the district is undertaking to close the achievement gap between the city’s poorest children and their wealthier peers. Those efforts range from moving to full-day kindergarten district wide to piloting an extended-day program at Casimir Pulaski School that will result in the equivalent of an extra 40 days of school this year.
As evidence that the district’s school improvement plan is working, Benigni shared the fact that Meriden students achieved their highest Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) scores in history last year.
“Everyone who partners with us in so many ways should be proud of this,” he said.
Williamson then addressed a gathering of city and school officials, detailing six goals that the U.S. Department of Education is currently focusing on: 1) Reducing the drop-out rate, 2) Supporting teachers and educational leaders, 3) Supporting science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, 4) Achieving equity in education, 5) Addressing the high cost of college, and 6) Empowering local school districts to take charge.
The goal of their visit, Williamson said, “is for us to listen and learn. We want to know what we can do better on the federal level to help you be more successful on the local level.”
She asked school officials to send her feedback and promised to report back to Washington.
She and Pirela then took a tour of the Meriden Family Zone (MFZ) and visited a Zone family. The MFZ is a Children First pilot project supporting families in a distressed area of downtown. It is modeled after the highly successful Harlem Children’s Zone.
Williamson said she would always remember this visit to Meriden because it gave her the chance to do something she has never done on any tour before—visit a family in their home.
During the tour of the downtown area, Mayor Mike Rohde and City Manager Larry Kendzior detailed the extensive revitalization efforts taking place there, including development of a new transportation district around the high-speed rail project and renovation of public housing.
The next stop on the visit was Roger Sherman Elementary School, where the Meriden Family Zone pilot began. After touring the school, Williamson and Pirela engaged in another roundtable discussion with city and state officials, representatives from funding foundations and community organizations, and families involved in the Zone.
Funders and community organizers praised Meriden as a trailblazing community, especially in the area of parental involvement. Williams said that parent engagement is an important focus also on the federal level.
“You can’t legislate that,” she pointed out.
At the end of the program, Pirela spoke directly to the parents in the group in Spanish. She then thanked everyone for sharing the good works taking place in Meriden.
“We will definitely take it back to Secretary Duncan and let him know,” she shared.
“Meriden is a great community, and I can see great changes coming,” Williamson summed up. “The extent of collaboration and the commitment of the community were just wonderful to see. I look forward to coming back in a few years when the Hub is finished,” she said.