April 6, 2016 12:08AM
By Kimberly Primicerio
MERIDEN — Beyond the typical first-day-of-school giddiness of students reuniting with friends and teachers catching up with one another, several new initiatives had staff members eager to kick off the school year Wednesday.
Maloney and Platt high schools have been redefining their curriculum with the help of a $450,000 grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. The high schools and middle schools have also created new recreation rooms designed to promote positive behavior, while John Barry School this year becomes just the second Meriden elementary school to offer a longer school day.
Due to the Nellie Mae grant, high school teachers have been going through training and professional development throughout the summer. The grant, New Approaches in Urban Districts, changes the way students are taught and makes them more responsible for their learning, according to school officials. Traditional teaching, such as lecturing, will give way to group discussions and labs, and students will be encouraged to discover things on their own. Technology will also be embraced.
“It allows teachers to collaborate and provide instructional strategies for students that differ from traditional ways of teaching,” said Robert Montemurro, Platt High School principal.
During the summer teachers from Maloney Platt designed a new curriculum that incorporates different ways of connecting with students, Montemurro said. The new lesson plans involve blended learning, or a combination of face-to-face learning with online education. The curriculum debuted with 10th grade history and English classes with the goal of bringing the techniques to the higher grades.
Platt Assistant Principal Heather Verdi said the Nellie Mae program is going to be “amazing.” Teachers will meet once a week to discus how things are going. The grant also coincides with the school’s new Bring Your Own Device pilot program. For the first three months of school, students across the school system are allowed to bring in their electronic devices including smartphones, iPads, tablets, e-readers and laptops.
“BYOD and blended learning is one in the same,” Verdi said. “We’re being innovative with the tools we have.”
Montemurro said having devices in the classroom is where education is going. In the next few years, he predicted that textbooks will be replaced with e-readers.
“It makes sense,” Montemurro said. “There’s so much you can teach with the devices.”
While walking through the hallway before the first bell rang, Montemurro shook hands with students, many he knew from his principal days at Washington Middle School. This is Montemurro’s second year at Platt. He welcomed students, told them where they could find their class schedules and politely asked several students to remove their baseball caps.
After weaving through the crowd of students, Montemurro reached the school’s new Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support room, which can be found at both high schools and the city’s two middle schools this year. The Platt room, set up like a college dormitory common area, was equipped with a table and chairs, a foosball table, an air hockey game, a TV with game console, as well as a Snapple machine and a couple of desktop computers. Students earn the ability to use the room by demonstrating positive behavior, Verdi said. Every student should get the opportunity to use it at some point, she added.
“They’re going to love it,” Montemurro said while walking around the room.
The room incorporates the school system’s Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support model designed to improve student behavior.
Sometimes it’s easier to reward students at the lower grades with stickers and other prizes, but the same rewards don’t work for high schools, Montemurro said.
“This is tangible to the students,” Montemurro said. “It’s meaningful.”
By 7:30 a.m., the commotion in Platt’s hallways had settled down. Students were in their classrooms. Teachers were delivering welcome back speeches and preparing young people for another school year.
Over at John Barry School, the morning went smoothly, said Principal Elsie Torres-Brown, even with the school’s debut of its new extended-day learning program. The program provides school students with over an hour of extra learning time a day. The school day begins at 7:50 a.m. and ends at 4 p.m.
“It went remarkably well,” said Torres-Brown in the school’s new computer room. The room was renovated to hold dozens of computers for students who will use them on a daily basis. “We had a very smooth opening.”
“This is an opportunity for us to offer additional enrichment, instruction, and use technology labs,” Torres-Brown said.
With a renovated media center, students will also get to use iPads. Extra time will be spent doing more science labs, arts and crafts and “lots of hands on activities,” Torres-Brown said.
“We’re trying to do more hands on and less paper activities,” she said.
Third graders sat in the computer room diligently working on a computer program. They quietly talked to one another and received help when necessary.
“Our staff is terrific, they look forward to opening day,” said School Superintendent Mark D. Benigni, who was visiting John Barry and would eventually visit another 10 schools. “They make sure it’s a special day for kids. That’s why the day goes so well, because of our staff and teams.”