- Front Porch
MERIDEN—One local educator who was key to starting extended-day programs in city schools says the initiative has been successful and should be expanded.
Erin Benham, a Wallingford native and resident, has been teaching in Meriden since 1980 after receiving her bachelor’s degree from St. Joseph College in West Hartford and master’s degree from Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.
A literacy teacher at Lincoln Middle School, Benham is also president of the city teachers union, a position that takes up much of her time after class.
The 55-year-old Benham got involved with the Meriden Federation of Teachers in the late 1980s, after she happened to be teaching in the classroom next to then-Vice President Robert Simmons. He convinced her to join the contract negotiations team and she stayed involved, becoming the union president seven years ago.
The communications coordinator for the union at the statewide level, Matt O’Connor, said that the relationship that Benham has been able to build between teachers and union leaders was a key to the extended day initiative.
“In this era of education reform, what often takes place is a very top-down, heavy-handed, bureaucratic approach to forcing change,” O’Connor said. “What was put in place in Meriden is by all accounts, a significant change to student learning. That labor-management relationship is critical and it doesn’t have to depend on personality and leadership style, but it often does, and that was the key here. It takes someone who really has the trust, support, and faith of their colleagues, and that’s what Erin has.”
In an extended-day program students attend for eight hours instead of the standard six and a half hours. The city has received national recognition of its program at Casimir Pulaski and John Barry elementary schools. There are also plans to expand the program to Israel Putnam and Roger Sherman schools. The eventual goal is to have an extended day at all eight elementary schools.
Extended day is viewed by some as a way for urban schools to close the achievement gap by providing additional programs and activities. More than 9,000 students attend extended-day programs in East Hartford, New London and other states, including Colorado, Massachusetts and New York.
Benham said she jumped on applying for a grant for the extended-day program because she thought it would be a good opportunity and was bolstered by then-Benjamin Franklin School Principal Dan Coffey.
Benham, Coffey, School Superintendent Mark Benigni, and a team of faculty and administrative staff attended a workshop hosted by the American Federation of Teachers a few years ago, where they were first introduced to the idea. The National Center on Time and Learning presented its research and introduced its Massachusetts program.
Benham said that the mindset following the conference was, “We could do this,” and she set forth, with a team, to apply for the Innovation Fund, a grant managed by the American Federation of Teachers.
Early support from staff at Casimir Pulaski, where Coffey is now principal, was “overwhelming,” Benham said. Now, a year and a half into the program at Casimir Pulaski and John Barry schools, Benham said the benefits are appreciable.
“Dan Coffey told me there were days last year where attendance at Pulaski was at 98 or 99 percent, which is remarkable,” Benham said. “That was a perk that was never even mentioned, something we never even thought of, but it’s great,” she said.
Benham recently made news outside the classroom when she and her husband, Richard, bought the former American Legion building in Wallingford from the town. The house, at 41 S. Main St., is next to Town Hall. After attempts to raze the building were blocked by the state and efforts over the past several years to sell or lease the building were unsuccessful, it was sold to the Benhams in late November for $35,000.
The Benhams’ current home, less than a half mile away from the American Legion building, has become too big since their adult children, Elizabeth and Thomas, moved out. The couple plan to live on the first floor and convert the second floor into an apartment. It is expected to take up to a year and more than $400,000 to renovate.
“It’s just the two of us, and we love our house now, but we saw the potential of living in that building,” Benham said. “We’re looking for one-floor living.”
The fact that the town struggled to sell the property for a couple years isn’t something that bothers Benham.
“We were pretty sure that this is what we wanted, but we stepped back, while other bidders were looking at it,” she said.
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