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State data show continued progress at Meriden schools like Israel Putnam

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MERIDEN — Jaclyn Sanzari’s fourth grade classroom at Israel Putnam Elementary School was filled with the sound of productive dialogue Friday morning. 

From behind her desk, Sanzari led a small group of students in a reading exercise, encouraging students to take notes and share their findings, demonstrating their understanding of the text they had read. Sanzari further prompted them with a series of questions. 

Meanwhile, other students, paired with partners, talked among themselves as they developed posters highlighting the character traits they identified regarding the historic figure they had read about on that particular day. The figure: a young Sitting Bull, the historic Native American tribal leader. Students were using both their main text and supplemental research they’d found using their Chromebooks to determine traits. 

Sayid Uddin, 9, worked with his fellow fourth-grader Travis Adams on their poster. Together, they identified a trait: heroic. They compiled evidence from the text and their research to back up why they had chosen that trait.

Uddin explained they had chosen the word, because in the story they read, the then-tribal warrior, who was not yet a chief, “does a lot of things to act as a leader.”

“He protects his people and he cares about all of them,” Uddin explained. He and Adams would compile more evidence to use in their poster.

Their school, Israel Putnam, was among three elementary schools in Meriden named by the Connecticut Department of Education (SDE) as a School of Distinction this year. All three schools, Israel Putnam, Hanover and Benjamin Franklin, showed high academic growth, particularly among students considered to have high needs, in reading and writing — a grouping also referred to as English language arts.

The announcement came alongside a detailed report showing the latest Next Generation Accountability System results. That system, according to SDE, scores public schools and districts on a broad set of 12 indicators to determine how well those schools and districts are preparing their students for future success in college and careers.

In addition to math, reading and science scores, the accountability system also factors in other indicators, including graduation rates, chronic absenteeism, academic growth, physical education, access to arts, among others.

“The system moves beyond test scores and graduation rates to provide a more holistic, multifactor perspective of district and school performance and incorporates student growth over time,” SDE’s announcement stated.

The new accountability results are the first full report the state has compiled since the COVID-19 pandemic’s arrival in the spring of 2020. 

According to state education officials, the overall results across schools and districts statewide showed signs of learning acceleration, but other reported measures showed lags compared to their pre-pandemic levels. Those lags include academic achievement, chronic absenteeism, college entry and physical fitness. Meanwhile, academic growth, high school graduation, and arts access all showed increases, according to SDE.

The statewide average Next Generation Accountability System score for the 2021-2022 school year was reported as 69.6. In Meriden, the local district’s score was 65.7. By comparison, the reported scores from the previous 2018-2019 report were 74.2 statewide and 69.4 for the Meriden Public Schools.

Including the 2018-2019 school year, the school district’s report has shown annual improvement. Despite the overall decline, Meriden’s report had shown strong promising results, including the academic growth at its elementary schools. At the same time, other measures, which included high rates of chronic absenteeism, showed improvements were needed. 

One measure the state deemed an “outlier” because it slightly exceeded the state mean gap, was a 0.7 percentage point difference in high school graduation rates between non-high needs and high-needs students. 

While that measure is an outlier, the school district is excelling in other measures, including expanding its ability to offer more high school students access to rigorous college-level courses, including Advanced Placement and Early College Experience classes, offered in partnership with the University of Connecticut.

Analyzing the data

Barbara Haeffner, Meriden’s assistant superintendent for teaching and innovation, said the latest accountability results will be used to assess the school district’s areas of success, where its curriculum is strong, and areas where the district is not meeting students’ needs. 

Haeffner said educators are already looking at their schools’ data. District administrators will also fully analyze the results.

“We will sit as a group and look at it in multiple, different ways, to have schools share their strengths and areas of growth with us — ways we can best support students and their needs,” Haeffner said.

For example, Haeffner explained the strategy for meeting the needs of at-risk high school aged students includes making sure their parents are involved in supporting them.

“Because we know parents are an important partner in students’ success in their education, if there’s a student with a need, we bring the parents in as well to support them. There’s different instructional strategies that happen in those classrooms, there’s continual on-track monitoring that happens, different protocols, so that we’re looking at student data,” Haeffner said.

The district convenes on track conferences in both of its high schools as well as for eighth grade students in its middle schools, Haeffner explained. Students work one-on-one with a caring adult, Haeffner said, having discussions around their individual goals, and the steps toward achieving those goals.

“We continue to slowly close that gap between the district and the state. There’s plenty of work for us to do, but we’re moving in the right direction,” Haeffner said. 

‘Growth mindset’

Alvin Larson, the school district’s research and evaluation specialist, described a continuous approach, whether students are in kindergarten or in 12th grade in which students develop a growth mindset — so that when the challenges and rigor in their classwork increases, students don’t become disengaged, but work through those challenges, with the support of teachers. 

“We monitor growth mindset,” Larson said. “We do pretty well.”

Other challenges educators and some students will continually need to work through include non-academic challenges such as struggles with anxiety and other mental health concerns.

In a written statement to the Record-Journal, School Superintendent Mark D. Benigni wrote, “The Accountability Index allows us to look at areas where we have had success and reflect on areas where we can provide more support.

“We celebrate the three schools of distinction, Franklin, Hanover, and Putnam. Our administrators are looking at school data and are having discussions with staff. We will continue analyzing data at the district level and discuss it with our administrators at our scheduled meetings. At a very challenging time in education, I am proud of the work of our teachers, staff, and most importantly — our students,” Benigni wrote. He added: “By working together, we are slowly closing the gap.”

New strategies

On Friday morning it was a typical school day Israel Putnam, with the added bonus that it was pajama day. Students and staff alike wore their most comfortable pajamas to class that day.

Some of the school district’s younger students, like those in Laura Banas’ third grade classroom at Israel Putnam, were developing their reading comprehension and vocabulary skills. 

Banas led students in an activity aimed at helping them figure out the meaning of new vocabulary words, by finding what Banas called “context clues.” 

“We’ve been using new strategies, context clues, to help them figure out the meaning,” Banas said. During the 90 minute blocks, students utilized a number of different methods to develop and practice their skills, including reading and listening. 

Banas said the progress she has seen students make during her four years at Israel Putnam has “been enormous.” Students also have access to increased resources.

Israel Putnam’s leaders, Principal Enza Adamcewicz, and Assistant Principal Nedra Miller described strong collaboration between the school’s classroom teachers in sharing best practices, and lesson planning, as well as the flexibility to tailor their instruction to meet students’ individual needs as some of the keys to their school’s academic successes. 

“We’re really proud of what the teachers are doing and the collaboration we have amongst teachers to share best practices. It’s not, ‘you’re in your own room, shut your door.’ They work together and plan together,” Miller said. 



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