A s a city councilor, mayor, and now, a local schools chief, Mark D. Benigni has had one constant priority in his career: expanding educational opportunities for children in his hometown of Meriden, Conn.
In his current role as superintendent of the 9,100-student Meriden school district, Mr. Benigni, 43, has orchestrated initiatives like full-day kindergarten, Saturday enrichment academies, and increased time for teacher collaboration. He has pushed for state-of-the-art learning environments—breaking ground on a $230 million project to build two new high schools, and securing a $3.5 million grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation to design student-centered, blended instruction.
But most notably, Mr. Benigni has brought expanded learning time to three of the district’s elementary schools, positioning Meriden—a majority-minority district—at the forefront of a national movement to increase student achievement and well-being through longer, more enriching school days.
Substantive improvement initiatives were once a rarity in the underresourced district—where more than 70 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, and where no increase in municipal funding has occurred over the past five budget cycles. But in that same period, “change has been the constant,” said Dan Coffey, the principal of Casimir Pulaski Elementary School.
It’s been a tall order for the historically underperforming school district, whose proximity to affluent suburban districts and a smattering of high-achieving charter and magnet schools has left a “chip on the shoulder” of the community, said Miguel A. Cardona, the performance and evaluation specialist for the district.
But “Dr. Benigni came in and immediately changed that mindset,” Mr. Cardona said. “He raised the bar and said, ‘We are not going to take this. Our kids deserve better.’ ”
Mr. Benigni’s first victory came less than a year into his tenure as superintendent, when he freed up an hour of time each week to devote to teacher collaboration and professional development.
It was an initiative the district had come close to accomplishing under the previous superintendent, when efforts to release students early were halted by a busing conflict with a local private school.
Meriden Federation of Teachers President Erin D. Benham said that when Mr. Benigni discovered no one in the district had reached out to the private school personally, he made the trip himself.
“A couple of weeks later, we were back at the table,” Ms. Benham said, describing Mr. Benigni’s enthusiasm as “something you want to go along with—it’s hard not to.”
Mr. Benigni said that undertaking required a level of understanding and collaboration between management and the union that set the tone for how business would be done moving forward. And its success helped pave the way for the superintendent’s more ambitious proposals for ensuring Meriden’s students would get more learning time: full-day kindergarten and expanded days at three neighborhood elementary schools.
“Launching that successfully and making sure that all views and opinions were represented put us on our way to doing bigger and better things,” he said.
In 2011, representatives of Meriden’s union and management team were invited by the American Federation of Teachers to attend a conference organized by the National Center on Time & Learning—a Boston-based nonprofit devoted to researching and supporting expanded-learning-time initiatives.
Confident that Meriden’s students could benefit from more time in school, the district applied for a $450,000 AFT Innovation Fund Grant to expand instructional time at Casimir Pulaski Elementary with a focus on writing, the STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering, and math—and healthy living.
The district received the grant June 1, 2012, and opened the doors to its first expanded-learning-time program in August of that year, said Ms. Benham. “Looking back now on the amount of work we did and what we accomplished in two months, it was incredible.”
Hammering out the logistics of the re-engineered school day with parents and teachers was challenging.
“This was high impact,” Principal Coffey recalled. “We were messing with people’s schedules at home. We were talking about students waiting for buses at 7 a.m. when it’s not too light out. You can imagine the skepticism, resistance, and fear of the program.”
But through negotiation and “real compromise,” Mr. Cardona said, Mr. Benigni managed to win over union support for controversial changes, including the use of community organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club and the YMCA to help staff the program.
“That’s the type of leadership Mark brings,” Mr. Cardona said. “He brings out the best in people and organizations, because he’ll give them an authentic seat at the table.”
Mr. Benigni, who began his career as a special education teacher in Meriden, said he learned the importance of transparent leadership while navigating the “unique but connected worlds” of education and politics.
During his tenure as an assistant principal in the neighboring Berlin district, Mr. Benigni was elected city councilor, and then four-term mayor, of Meriden. He returned to the district as superintendent in 2010, after two years as a high school principal in the nearby Cromwell district.
“I always knew education was my passion,” Mr. Benigni said. “Even as mayor, it was about what I could do to better the lives of people, and most importantly, students.”
Today, students at Casimir Pulaski, John Barry, and Roger Sherman elementary schools receive an additional 100 minutes of instruction each day with technical and financial support from a public-private partnership known as the TIME Collaborative. Led by the National Center on Time & Learning and backed by the Ford Foundation, the initiative has brought expanded learning time to schools in 16 districts across Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Tennessee. (The foundation also underwrites coverage of more and better learning time in Education Week.)
“We didn’t want it to be paper and pencil,” Mr. Benigni said of the programs, which focus on building background knowledge and honing lifelong skills through “high-quality enrichment.” Electives like woodshop, scrapbooking, and guitar—designed by teachers based on their own passions—are infused with writing and math activities that complement core academics.
I always knew education was my passion. Even as mayor, it was about what I could do to better the lives of people, and most importantly, students.
In a district where barriers such as poverty and lack of transportation have long inhibited access to enrichment activities, Meriden’s leaders view the mere availability of such programs as a milestone. But they are aware that the initiative’s long-term success relies on measurable gains in student achievement.
To that end, Mr. Benigni points to positive results at Pulaski, which entered its third year of expanded learning time last fall. Scores on the most recent state tests, in 2013, showed strong improvements in mathematics, reading, and writing at all grade levels.
As a result, Pulaski advanced to the classification status of “progressing,” which is the second-highest rating in the state’s five-tier accountability system, and received recognition as a Connecticut School of Distinction.
In response to mixed test results at Barry, the district sought additional resources and supports for the school’s expanded-learning-time program through a School Improvement Grant it received from the state of Connecticut in 2014.
While Barry faces particular challenges—including the highest poverty rates and the greatest mobility rates among the three expanded-learning-time schools—Mr. Benigni said recent scores from the district’s internal benchmark assessments showed promising improvement (The district cannot yet account for achievement gains at Sherman, which began its expanded-learning-time program last fall.)
But Mr. Cardona said he believes some of the most palpable examples of the program’s success are harder to convey through data—including the ways in which partnerships with local organizations have set up “informal mentorships” that have strengthened community bonds, increased staff diversity, and inspired students in the district.
“When our students walk into the building and they see a person of color leading something, that’s a very good thing,” he said. “Those relationships make them feel like they can be a karate master, own their own business, or direct the Boys & Girls Club one day.”
Mr. Cardona said the program has inspired teachers as well.
“I can’t put into words the feeling that you get when you’re a part of something and you know you’re doing good things for kids,” he said, “but that’s the feeling that you get when you walk through our schools. And that wasn’t here before. Mark brought that here.”