MERIDEN — Michael Miller sat on a white board over a blue tank that was filled with water behind Lincoln Middle School Tuesday morning.
Miller’s students took turns hurling a ball toward a red target. When the ball hit that target and the board collapsed, Miller and other teachers who sat above the tank were plunged into the chilly water below — much to their students’ delight.
Other students squealed with excitement as they ran and jumped through bounce house obstacle courses, tossed bean bags, sat for face painting and other activities.
Those activities were all part of a carnival themed event this week to cap off the school district’s Extended School Year program. The program specifically serves more than 200 students across the city who have been identified as having special needs — including intellectual disabilities and behavioral needs. Some 65 Meriden Public Schools staff members, including teachers, paraprofessionals, behavior technicians, speech pathologists and other staff, have been working with those students since the program began in early July.
The program seeks to provide students with resources and activities in a sensory friendly and safe environment.
Like Tuesday’s carnival, some of the program’s activities are structured as reverse field trips. So instead of taking students to a petting zoo, for example, educators have brought those activities directly to their students.
Victoria Ryan, head of behavior analysis and social emotional learning for Meriden Public Schools, served as ringmaster of the carnival. She wore a bright red tailcoat with a gold trim lapel and shoulder pads and a black top hat as part of the festivities.
Ryan explained that starting with last year’s Extended School Year program, its leaders began thinking about how to use funds to provide students with even more enriching, yet still sensory friendly, experiences.
The program seeks to help students maintain the progress and skills they’ve developed over the past school year, while helping prepare them for the upcoming school year.
Tuesday morning’s activities included the dunk tank, bounce house obstacle courses, bean bag tosses and other activities, along with snacks that one might eat at traditional carnival.
“We’ve been having so much fun,” Ryan said.
For some students it’s four weeks. For other students it’s five weeks, depending on their levels of need.
The youngest students are in early elementary grades, with the program also serving middle school and high school students as well. According to the state Department of Education, students who receive special education services that fall under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act are eligible to continue to receive those services until they reach 22 years old, or until they receive a high school diploma.
The program began July 5 and continues until July 28 for most students. The summer program for students on the autism spectrum will continue for an additional week, into early August.
Miller, a Meriden native, is an instructor with the district’s Venture Academy program, which serves high school aged students with special needs. It’s Miller’s second year with the summer program.
Miller described the program as fantastic. He said it allows him to work with a variety of students — including those with intellectual disabilities. At Venture Academy, Miller works primarily with students who have been determined to have emotional disturbance — often the result of trauma.
“For the kids, it’s fantastic, because it keeps them tied into school in ways that have a big impact in the fall,” Miller said. “When they come in, they have a regular schedule. They see an agenda. But they have a lot more close teacher interactions and they have more fun.”
Staff, like Miller, are working with smaller groups of students than they would during the school year, enabling them to build communities in those smaller settings, working on skills they’ve developed previously as well as new ones.
Students who may be reserved or experience other behaviors when in larger settings can work on their skills in that smaller environment, which also allows for closer teacher interactions.
“And [our students] can take those social gains and take them into a bigger classroom and try to use them to be successful there,” Miller said.
Miller said he’s enjoyed reconnecting with students he taught previously, more than a year ago, along with students he taught this past year. He said he’s enjoyed maintaining those relationships.
“It’s so cool to see how far they’ve come,” Miller said.
Rachael Tyrrel, a special education resource teacher who works with elementary aged students, similarly described the joy of seeing students grow throughout the program.
“In my classroom alone we have students from all the different elementary schools. It’s really great for them to see their peers, and interact with each other,” Tyrrel said. “It’s a great collaborative environment. Similarly for me, I get to interact with teachers who I don’t normally work with during the school year — so it’s a wonderful, enriching experience.”
The past school year saw a full return to in-person learning. But the previous school years saw disruptions — with full remote learning in the spring of 2020 and some students attending school remotely during the 2020-2021 school while the majority attended either fully in-person or hybrid in-person and remote.
Tyrrel said it’s really nice to be able to provide students with enriching experiences, while also enabling them to socialize and work on their daily living skills.
For Tyrrel, the program has allowed her to pilot programs she might incorporate in the upcoming school year. One of them: cooking in the classroom. Tyrrel said she enjoys developing ways to get students fully involved in cooking activities.
Jacob Conte, a behavior technician at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School, is in his first summer with the program. He described getting to know students outside of his typical school environment.
“We see them in the classroom always, but we never get to see them outside and how they behave sort of socially,” Conte said, adding, “It’s awesome.”
Students seemed to enjoy it as well.
Matthew Kennedy, a 12-year-old Washington Middle School student, held a bag full of goodies that he won during the carnival’s competitions.
Still, the best part, he said, “was dunking my teacher.” That was Mr. W, Kennedy said.
Another student, Paola Garcia, 15, said she enjoyed everything about the program.
“It’s amazing,” Garcia said. Like Kennedy, she enjoyed the dunk tank. Funding challenge
The Meriden Public Schools has expanded its offerings through its Extended School Year program by tapping into its allotment of federal COVID-19 relief funds.
How long the expanded summer program continues will depend on the availability of other future funding.
Even before the pandemic and the availability of COVID-19 relief monies, funding programs to support growing populations of students with special needs has been a challenge for school districts across the state, not just in Meriden.
According to a report issued last fall by the advocacy group Connecticut Voices for Children, school districts statewide have seen an increase in the number of students enrolled in special education programs over the 12-year period before the COVID-19 pandemic’s arrival. The report noted that school districts across the state have struggled to obtain funding needed to “keep pace” with the rising costs of special education during that time frame.
That struggle has led to strained local budgets and unmet student needs across many school districts, according to the report.
In Meriden, educators say they will continue to find ways to increase their ability to provide structure and support for their students. Ryan noted that the program has drawn repeat staff members, who participated previously.
“That really has been helpful in growing our summer school program,” she said, noting that students end up engaging in highly social activities, and connecting with educators they might not see during the regular school year, forming relationships with them as well.
“And then when students return to school, we see students having less regression in skills,” Ryan said, “and they have an easier transition into the new school year.”