MERIDEN — Catherine Valentin is in her 14th year teaching. During an unprecedented school year, she, colleagues and students are continually making adjustments.
For example, something newly implemented at Maloney High School, where Valentin teaches English in grades 10 through 12: virtual office hours. She and students can meet one-on-one, conferencing through computers.
It was on a recent Wednesday, nearly eight months into the academic year, when Valentin spoke with a reporter.
She described how a student working on an assignment needed additional help. He asked Valentin what her virtual office hours were. She told him when she was available and they agreed to meet during period eight. It was a remote learning day for the student.
“I always try to give students that opportunity when they’re in class, to ask me questions,” Valentin said.
Sometimes students prefer meeting one-on-one. Virtual office hours were not offered prior to the pandemic, but are an example of a new solution that emerged during a school year filled with changes and challenges.
For example, how students attend high school has dramatically altered.
Combined enrollment at Maloney at Platt high schools is around 2,330 students. About two-thirds attend in-person on staggered schedules. On days students’ cohorts are not in the buildings, they are at home, distance learning.
The remaining one-third of students at each school are full distance-learners, plugged into classrooms with district-issued devices.
Whether students are physically attending class on a hybrid schedule, or attending at home in full distance learning, students and teachers have had to make quick adjustments. Difficulty getting on track
Data shared by Meriden Public Schools and by the Connecticut RISE Network, to which the Meriden high schools belong, show that the academic year had gotten off to a bumpy start. Fewer numbers of high school students, particularly ninth graders and 12th-graders, were on track to pass their classes.
The RISE Network partners with 10 high schools in nine school districts, including Hartford, Middletown, Naugatuck and New Haven.
In February, RISE released a report, titled “Plugged In,” which showed its findings on the academic progress of students at the network’s partner schools.
RISE found disparities in the percentages of students who were on-track after the first quarter of the school year based on whether they were attending school on a hybrid schedule or attending fully remotely. After that first quarter, 74% of grades nine-through-12 hybrid students were considered on-track. By comparison, 54% of remote students were considered on-track.
In Meriden, officials were not yet able to offer a similar on track breakdown that compared hybrid and remote students. Instead, that data was broken down by grade level for each school.
For example, by the end of the first semester at Maloney, 71% of seniors were on track to pass the five or more classes they were taking. It was a significant reduction from the same semester just a year prior. During the first semester of the 2019-2020 school year, 92% of Maloney’s then-senior class was on track. That, of course, was before the pandemic.
At Platt, the struggles for ninth graders and for 12th graders were also significant in the first semester. This academic year’s second quarter, during which 74% of freshmen and 60% of seniors were on track, proved to be a low point. A year prior, during that same marking period, 93% of freshmen and 70% of seniors were reported to have been on track.
For students attending Platt and Maloney in-person, adjustments were not limited to social distancing and mask wearing. They had to adjust to the new schedules. And it was a struggle. Along the way, students used to previously rigorous and regular class schedules have had to learn to manage their own schedules. ‘Get it Done Saturdays’
Maloney’s Valentin is also involved with the after school academy program and one of a group of educators who returns to the building on a Saturday before the end of each marking period to help students who have fallen behind.
Maloney’s most recent “Get It Done Saturday” event, as it has been dubbed by educators, was on March 20. It was well-attended, Valentin said.
“Students made up a lot of work. They got help when they needed it. And they got opportunities for community service,” Valentin said. “As much of a struggle as it’s been [this year], it was really good to see everyone pull together like that.”
Luisa Taylor, a counselor at Maloney who works primarily with freshmen, was among the educators involved with the “Get It Done Saturday” program. She too described it as a success.
“You would think students wouldn’t be excited to come to school on a Saturday morning but I had students come after and say ‘I want to come again,’ ” Taylor said.
So a program that had started with only freshmen is now open to all students. Taylor and others interviewed described the transition from eighth grade to ninth grade as important. Students’ ability to complete ninth grade without repeating is often seen as a predictor of future high school success.
“Get It Done Saturday,” also undertaken by educators at Platt High School, was just one of many adjustments made during a challenging school year.
Educators say efforts to allow in-person and distance learning students to catch up, with after school tutoring and counseling along with weekend sessions, have proven successful.
Peter Civitello, supervisor of Data Integration and Post Secondary Planning for the Meriden Public Schools, wrote in an email, “Most importantly this gave the teachers an extra opportunity to work with not only their hybrid students, but it also allowed for our distance learning students to come into our building (remaining cohorted) and receive that personal attention and in-person learning opportunity. The initial feedback we received from teachers and students was how nice it was to finally develop that relationship with each other and work in-person.”
Civitello noted the last two Saturday events at Platt and Maloney each drew more than 170 student attendees.Rethinking teaching
Platt Principal Dan Corsetti expressed a constant worry about students falling behind and not graduating within four years of when they start high school. He and other educators are closely monitoring students’ progress with the final stretch of the school year ahead.
Corsetti’s worry predates the pandemic. But Platt, like Maloney, over the past decade has made strides in improving graduation rates for students.
In June 2021, 91% of students who entered school in the fall of 2016, graduated on time. The figure was a significant increase over the four-year graduation rate within the past decade. Take the class of 2011, for example: around 70% of students who graduated as members of that class at either Platt or Maloney completed their high school studies within four years.
Corsetti said this particular year hasn’t been easy for educators in high school.
“They have been working really hard this year, I gotta tell you. They have been rethinking how they teach, how they plan constantly,” Corsetti said, adding, he has teachers who have been in the field for 25 years who feel “like they are first-year teachers because of all the uncertainty.”
Adjusting teaching approaches to keep students, whether in-person or distance learning, engaged has been a challenge all year. Now, with the fourth quarter here, more challenges await, Corsetti explained. Educators are forging plans for summer classes and the upcoming school year.
Come June, Corsetti said, he is looking forward to sitting back and figuring out what worked during the school year.
“We can’t go back to the way we did things before. We discovered some really cool things. We moved forward in technology in ways we didn’t we think would. There are pieces here,” Corsetti said. “... It’s a matter, making sure kids are in a position to succeed — all those intervention pieces and summer programming, so that come September kids are where they need to be.” New ways to meet with students
Teachers like Valentin are using smartphone apps, like ParentSquare and StudentSquare, to communicate directly with students and families.
“That has been super helpful. I know I’ve been reached out to countless times by my students. It really helps in regards to ensuring that contact is made,” Valentin said.
Being able to differentiate how to meet students’ needs on an individual basis has been huge, Valentin said.
Giving students and their families options, to meet them where they are, has been important, given how rapidly students’ and families’ situations can change, Valentin explained.
“I have students who can’t necessarily make it to class, for whatever reason it may be. If they’re quarantined, I can send them their work digitally.” She can create online discussion groups so students can collaborate with their peers.
“I can type up a discussion question and have them respond. We can use technology for students who are not able to be in class to have an online discussion. Technology has definitely helped during this pandemic,” Valentin said.
Taylor said her role as counselor is to make sure students have the support they need to succeed. It starts with establishing one-on-one relationships with each student.
“I think it’s really about building that relationship with them,” Taylor said. “That’s our number one goal. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. I think we carry that with us.”
And if students express worry about failing or lacking motivation, they work through those struggles together.
Taylor intervenes when a teacher reports to her that a student appears disengaged from learning: whether their head is down during an in-person class or they’re not showing their face on camera during distance learning.
“Google Meets has been our friend this year. It’s one way we could connect that feels more personal,” Taylor said. So she will meet with students that way. Taylor said she and one student connected during lunch. It was a remote day for this particular student, who wanted to chat.
“I think it was just that connection,” Taylor said.
Valentin and Taylor co-run their school’s new afterschool academy. The academy’s second session started recently. It is now running every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
Valentin explained the academy allows students, whether they attend hybrid or remotely, to get extra in-person academic help with teachers, or gives them a quiet space to complete classwork on their own.
Valentin’s own schedule has shifted just like her students. In addition to her teaching duties and current roles leading Maloney’s after-hours academic support programs, she is also an assistant coach for the Spartans softball team. A year ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic reached Connecticut, in-person learning halted. Spring sports were canceled.
The team has since resumed practices and competition.
Sherry McLaughlin, deputy director for college and career readiness at RISE, is familiar with the efforts being undertaken at Platt and Maloney.
“I think that one of the benefits of Meriden Public Schools and the staff there is they have a let’s get it done attitude, which is we will do whatever it takes to get the students to be successful — and that is huge,” McLaughlin said.
Valentin would also credit students with putting in the work.
“They’re absolutely persevering and being resilient,” she said. “Students have really pushed through and shown their resiliency just in everything they do. I think back to when I was a teenager. I don’t know how I would have adapted to these challenges like they have.”