One day last spring, your superintendent of schools asked me to spend a day with him traveling from school to school. If you know Dr. Benigni, you’ll understand that we didn’t sit still anywhere for long and that he was begging for a diet coke wherever we landed. You’ll also know that he knew everyone’s name, and that he loves Meriden’s kids.
We first met in 2010 when I was interim president of Middlesex Community College for a year. I had retired two years earlier after over thirty years as a community college president; the last twenty-plus at Manchester Community College. And, years ago, I had been a high school teacher and then a school superintendent. Maybe Mark thought I knew something!
Towards the end of the day, I told Dr. Benigni that I would be happy if my three grandchildren, who live in Western Massachusetts, went to the Meriden Public Schools. Like every grandparent, I think they are the smartest kids on the planet … for sure, they know how to make me laugh … and I want them to go to schools where people care about them and where they are challenged. I want them to enjoy learning, and when I collect them from the bus, I want them to be smiling.
A few weeks ago, Dr. Benigni asked me to share my perceptions with some of his staff, so let me tell you what I told them:
Above all, I felt welcomed. I didn’t feel I was intruding. I got the sense that any visitor to any of your schools would feel at home. The kids were awake. So were the teachers. I didn’t see much lecturing; I did see lively discussions. saw all-day kindergarten. I saw lots of books, both in the classrooms and in offices. I saw student art. Every school we visited was clean, and the grounds were well maintained. There were volunteers all over the place: mostly parents. If there was security … and I trust there was … it was unobtrusive.
What does it all add up to? I felt comfortable; the kids felt comfortable; teachers and administrators seemed pleased to be there. (Or they were doing a superb acting job!)
There were all kinds of people in every classroom. If my grandkids, and yours, are to succeed in America in the second half of this century, they need to grow up where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. They need to grow up comfortable with and respecting people of different races, religions, backgrounds, income levels.
Yes, test scores are important, and I see that they are improving in Meriden. But, as a society, we’re becoming obsessed with assessments and rankings. (As someone put it, we treasure what we measure.)
The physicist Albert Einstein once said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” (If you’ve gotten this far, read that one again.) It would be irresponsible for me to say that I don’t care how my grandchildren do on tests, but far more important is whether they are kind and thoughtful, and curious about the world in which they live.
I have gotten the impression that Meriden’s children are encouraged to read, maybe to play sports, maybe to play a musical instrument; to help a neighbor. I hope everyone in Meriden, whether they’re parents or not, uses the public library. And I have to say this: consider taking a community college course … at the Meriden Center of Middlesex Community College, of course.
We all know that it takes a community to raise a child, and I hope I’m right: from everything I have seen, Meriden is such a community.
Jonathan M. Daube is president emeritus of Manchester Community College. Born in England, he came to the United States about fifty years ago.