MERIDEN — Erin Benham left the classroom last week for the final time, ending a career spanning 36 years, most of it at Lincoln Middle School.
She also steps down as president of the Meriden Federation of Teachers, a 12-year role that brought her and Meriden Public Schools state and national exposure.
Benham leaves the district but continues in education at the state level. She was reappointed by Gov. Ned Lamont to a second four-year term on the state Board of Education in February. Benham served on the board's accountability and support committee and the legislative and policy development committee.
Maloney High School social studies department leader Lauren Mancini-Averitt will serve three years as the new president of the Meriden Federation of Teachers.
”I want to be open for transitioning,” said Mancini-Averitt. “I’m trying to keep it very supportive. It’s an ever changing field. I’m trying to make everybody understand what it looks like to teach.”
At the final union committee meeting in Benham’s Wallingford home Wednesday, union officers discussed concerns over state mandates that draw time and attention away from classroom time. They are counting on Benham to get state officials to understand their time constraints in Hartford.
“The teachers want to be in front of the kids,” Mancini-Averitt said. “We need her at the state level to be a voice for Meriden, Meriden students and Meriden teachers.”
Lamont has yet to appoint a state education commissioner and there remain four open seats on the 11-member board.
Mancini-Averitt is finishing up some items on Benham’s plate and will prepare for the fall, when contract negotiations begin. Salaries and insurance are expected to be issues, but other factors such as length of school days and even the length of the school year might be added, she said.
The teachers’ union enjoyed some collaboration with district management through Benham’s predecessor Tom Bruenn and former Superintendent of Schools Mary Noonan Cortwright. Benham continued that collaboration and built a stronger partnership with current School Superintendent Mark Benigni.
“Erin expanded on that with her connections to AFT and the district,” said Board of Education member Robert Kosienski. “The collaboration has been a tremendous success and not just statewide but nationally.”
Kosienski said the board and the union didn’t agree on everything “except a vision for student success.”
Together, the union and the district created the Peer Coaching Program, the Leadership Academy, Professional Learning Communities, and the Meriden Teachers Sharing Success program, that allows innovative teachers to open their classrooms.
Benigni and Benham also partnered to implement extended-day learning at three elementary schools over the course of four years. The program added 90 minutes to a student’s school day, for enrichment activities they might not have gotten otherwise.
To pay for the program, union representatives and district officials worked together on an application to the AFT Innovation Fund. The union was awarded a $150,000 grant in July 2012 and received another grant for nearly the same amount in July 2013.
But the funding ran out and the district was forced to eliminate extended day in two schools, leaving only John Barry Elementary School continuing to offer it with the help of some additional grant money.
But the effort received state and national attention.
“Our district is known for our ability to collaborate,” Benham said. “The central office administrators and teachers are more of a team. It’s the only way to get work done. We didn’t agree on everything. We put in initiatives that didn’t go too well but it’s always been blameless.”
Benham’s biggest challenges as union president was recognizing realistic pay and benefits for teachers while at the same time, trying to attract quality. Some of that starts in the middle schools by encouraging them to become teachers and return to Meriden, she said.
Her goal at the state level is addressing learning equity for all kids,” she said.
“We have a lot of mandates through legislation and the board spends a lot of time on accountability, she said. “The biggest shift is on accountability, and it’s not all about the test.”
As a literacy teacher, Benham points to the district’s many bi-lingual students whose reading might take longer to catch up to grade level but who have made tremendous growth and should be recognized.
“The growth of the child isn’t just about the test,” Mancini-Avenetti concurred.
Benigni called Benham a loyal friend as well as a colleague.
“Erin is an excellent teacher and an exceptional leader,” Benigni said. “She has been a terrific partner in the work and has been instrumental in the district’s improvement. Meriden Public Schools is a better place because of Erin.”