MERIDEN — With the opening of school weeks away, providing students with social, emotional and behavioral support will continue to be a focus for city educators.
At two middle schools, Lincoln and Edison, that support will come in the form of new dean of students positions, which the Board of Education approved earlier this week. Meanwhile, the school district welcomes 60 new educators across the city’s schools.
Washington Middle School, which currently has two assistant principals, will not see a revised administrative structure.
The dean of students positions at Lincoln and Edison will be funded for the next two years through the Meriden Public Schools’ allocation of American Rescue Plan Act money.
According to a posted job description the major duties of the deans of students include responding to disciplinary referrals from staff, conferring and counseling students who have committed disciplinary infractions, to resolve conflict, as well as conferring with families, teachers and school building support staff “to promote acceptable student behavior.” Monitoring student attendance and communicating with students, staff and parents also are among the position’s major duties.
School Superintendent Mark D. Benigni said officials are pleased that the Board of Education supported the dean positions over the next two years.
“It will add a resource and student support for students and staff at the middle schools,” said Benigni, who along with other district leaders addressed the school system’s newest group of educators during teacher orientation this week at Maloney High School.
Benigni said a message that he had for new teachers, in addition to thanking them for joining the district, is not to set limits on their students as far as achievement goes.
“We don’t want to ever set limits. We want them to reach for their highest star,” Benigni said. “It’s the work that matters most.”
Benigni said he is excited for the district’s new cohort of teachers.
Focus on student support
The fact that one of Lincoln’s previous assistant principal positions was already vacant enabled the restructuring there, explained Louis Bronk, assistant superintendent for personnel and talent development.
Bronk said the dean position will be focused on leading student supports.
“That’s definitely one of the things we want to work on, coming off of a couple of COVID years,” Bronk said.
Meriden, like other school districts across the state, has seen a dip in student attendance over the past few years. So that will be one of the new deans’ roles.
The positions were officially posted on Wednesday.
Meriden Federation of Teachers union president Lauren Mancini-Averitt supports the measure. The new positions are part of that union.
District leaders and Mancini-Averitt pointed out that helping students adjust from the social isolation that was spurred by remote learning, social distancing and other measures that were previously implemented to slow the spread of COVID-19 in schools, will be an ongoing need.
For example, many students in last year’s 10th grade class in both of the city’s high schools had never set foot in a classroom in their schools, because of their remote learning status the previous year.
So for some students a focus in the upcoming year will be helping them adjust to their school settings.
The role of the dean of students includes leading teachers on restorative justice practices, which seek to resolve student behavioral concerns, disruptive behavior and potential conflicts through relationship building and mediation, rather than focusing on discipline.
Mancini-Averitt said the dean of students position, which was introduced to both Platt and Maloney high schools during the 2021-2022 school year, has helped educators at both schools address their students’ needs.
“They are there to assist students, to show them this is the Meriden way. This is how you have to behave,” Mancini-Averitt said.
Deans were a presence in classrooms and were able to meet students where they were, Mancini-Averitt noted.
Overall staffing stable
An area of concern for district officials is special education staffing. The district has around a half-dozen unfilled special education positions.
However, overall, the district has seen a positive trend in staffing. Mancini-Averitt noted that many of the district’s newest staff members were already Meriden residents. A few of them are graduates of the Meriden Public Schools and have come back to their former school district to teach.
Mancini-Averitt said one factor that has allowed the Meriden Public Schools to be less impacted by staffing shortages than other school districts is the ongoing collaboration between administrators and classroom teachers. She described it as a partnership.
“It’s the ability for administrators to think outside the box and to be able to support teachers,” Mancini-Averitt.
Teachers need to feel empowered to approach administrators when they have needs, Mancini-Averitt said. Teachers also need to feel as though they have autonomy in their classrooms, while at the same time adhering to curriculum standards and continuing to move the academic needle forward.
“We want everyone to feel respected, to feel like they’re actually autonomous in some ways. It’s one of our focuses,” Mancini-Averitt said. “We want everyone to feel respected.”
James Flynn, recently named principal at Lincoln, heads to the school after having spent the previous three years as an assistant principal at Maloney.
Flynn said the biggest aspect of the dean of students position is communicating with families. The individuals in those roles will work with school climate specialists, teachers, students and administrators.
“The parent communication piece is important, monitoring students who might have chronic inattendance and implementing plans for students who need to work with school counselors,” Flynn said.
Restorative practices are also a major component, he said. The approach can help fix “that community when trust has been broken,” Flynn said. “I think it’s a great positive role. It’s a position that can really showcase leadership for someone.”
Edison Principal Erin Lyons-Barton said educators are looking to assist students who risk having trouble in class.
“This dean is going to be key to helping with a lot of students,” she said.
Numerous factors can cause students to disengage from their learning or to become disruptive in a classroom, Lyons-Bardon explained.
So the deans’ role is to be supportive and helpful, she said. “They will listen to and get to know students before it comes to the administration. It’s going to be a collaborative team effort. We will be working side-by-side.”
At Hanover Elementary School, Orlando Valentin enters his second year as an assistant principal.
He described a plan to ensure the upcoming academic year more closely resembles pre-pandemic years, with social distancing measures being scaled back. Families, students and staff members who opt to continue wearing masks, if that’s what they’re comfortable with, will be able to do so. But it will not be an enforced requirement.
Helping students in kindergarten and first grade adjust to interacting with peers and educators will be a focus for students at Hanover and other schools, through what Valentin called “purposeful play.”
Valentin said educators began to see the fruits of that emphasis during the past school year, with students learning soft skills — like learning to reason and compromise with one another.
Valentin explained the social skills are equally important as academic skills.
“Really we’re educating the whole child,” he said, adding, the point of school is not just academics, but to help students become global citizens, future leaders and collaborators.