MERIDEN — Skyler Puckett is currently a student teacher at Thomas Hooker Elementary School, working with fourth grade students.
But next month, the 23-year-old Wallingford resident will quickly change gears. Puckett heads to John Barry Elementary School, where she’ll lead a second grade classroom of her own.
The position was newly created by the Board of Education last month. District administrators and educators reviewed enrollment data and observed that second grade class sizes at John Barry had ballooned, averaging more than 23 students per class. In an effort to reduce those numbers, officials proposed utilizing an available classroom space and hiring a teacher to lead that classroom. The board backed the proposal in a vote last month.
Leading that classroom will be a teacher who has long been interested in the profession. Puckett said that interest goes back to when she was a young child.
“I was that kid who was always interested in playing school,” Puckett said. So her parents created a classroom in their basement, where she could role play being a teacher. Puckett’s grandfather, a school custodian, would bring in extra desks from his building.
“I would teach to imaginary students,” Puckett said. “It was a full-blown classroom in my basement.”
She would later attend H.C. Wilcox Technical High School and originally pursued a path in the nursing field after high school. Puckett said while she was an undergraduate student she realized that wasn’t her path, so she switched to school psychology.
“I always knew I loved working with children,” Puckett said. After interning at a school in East Haven, Puckett realized she was “meant to be in the classroom, teaching.” So she applied for a master’s program at Southern Connecticut State University. She will complete that program later this month.
Puckett joins John Barry at a time that has been challenging overall for educators. The COVID-19 pandemic had slowed down learning in most school districts. In Meriden, where educators have long focused on small group instruction and targeting students’ needs individually, data shows those efforts are yielding results. More than two years after the pandemic’s arrival, students in the school districts are making gains similar to those they had made before the pandemic.
“We’ve done a good job bouncing back,” said Daniel Crispino, who serves as director of school leadership for Meriden’s elementary schools. “Targeted, small group instruction has been a primary focus for us, especially over the past few years.”
In recent school years, district officials have presented requests to the board for additional staffing to reduce class sizes in other school buildings. The board backed those requests as well.
Crispino said reducing a classroom from 24 students to 16 or 17 students “allows teachers to run smaller groups in a much more efficient way.”
Crispino described the alignment between the Meriden Board of Education, its central office, building administrators and classroom teachers as “one of the biggest reasons Meriden is as successful as it is.”
“Our alignment is second to none,” Crispino said, describing the collaboration between the district’s unions and its administration as a “partnership.”
“It’s what’s best for kids,” Crispino said. “This was not a hard process. We found class sizes were high. So we worked with the teachers union, found the room, the space to make sure things were in place.”
Meriden Federation of Teachers President Laure Mancini-Averitt described a similar level of collaboration between her union’s membership and district leadership, especially when it comes to how classroom instruction and student supports are delivered.
Mancini-Averitt said the union is constantly monitoring to make sure resources are being distributed equitably and that class sizes are appropriate for their age levels.
Overall students’ needs have increased over the past few years. The union, administration and board have collaborated on ways to address those needs, Mancini-Averitt explained.
“We’ve added additional personnel, behavior techs, climate specialists. We’re constantly coming up with creative ways to reshape instruction within the classroom, and targeting different areas to make sure students are achieving at the level we expect,” Mancini-Averitt said.
Gail Kelly, Thomas Hooker principal, said class size is a focus at her school and at other buildings she’s led. The goal is to keep class sizes to “an ideal number for instruction” while looking at the resources available, she said. It’s a constant dialogue.
“We’re lucky enough to have someone like Skyler who is a student teacher, who is familiar with the curriculum, what the system is in Meriden, and who understands the community. She’s familiar already with the Meriden Public Schools and can jump in as the teacher,” Kelly said.
Puckett is entering the teaching profession at a challenging time.
She explained what attracted her to the field in the first place is knowing that she is helping to shape future generations.
“I love making a difference in someone’s life,” Puckett said.
Puckett described seeing students progress academically as rewarding.
“When their lightbulbs in their head go on, and they connect, ‘Oh, this is it. I finally understand it,’” she said. “Seeing that ah ha moment is so rewarding as a teacher.”