MERIDEN — On Wednesday afternoon, the first day of class, Kevin Wodatch assembled his class of seventh grade students in the hall near Lincoln Middle School’s Times Square.
In a series of problem solving activities, Wodatch, who normally teaches math, had students work on collaborating and team building. He wanted students to ask each other questions and learn how to solve problems together.
So Wodatch asked students to line up shoulder to shoulder — in a series of different configurations. For example, in one exercise, they needed to line up in alphabetical order, based on their first names. In another task, they needed to line up in order of their birthdays. Successfully completing those tasks meant they needed to seek pertinent information from their peers.
Wodatch emphasized he does not want his students to be silent learners, only listening to the instruction he delivers. So the tasks he asked them to perform required that they communicate.
“Take the information you have. Match it with information other people have. When you incorporate their information you’ll have a much clearer idea of what to do,” Wodatch said.
Learning how to work well with others, Wodatch noted, is a skill that will serve them well later on in life.
He later told a Record-Journal reporter a point he emphasizes with students is, “here you work together to solve a math problem. When you get older and get a job, if your boss gives you an assignment to do, you’re not going to just sit there and be like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing,’ and sit there in silence and hope it will eventually just come to me. Ask your peers. You’ve got to learn to use resources around you. Use your peers to help you figure out information that you don’t know the answers to.
“It’s more about the life skills aspect than just learning the math. It’s about learning the skills they need in life to succeed,” Wodatch said.
His students at Lincoln were some of the more than 8,500 Meriden Public Schools students who reported to class on Wednesday. The vast majority of students made their returns after a summer off, joined by a new group of kindergarteners and new peers in other grades.
Officials reported an overall smooth day, with few reports of busing delays, and only minor hiccups overall.
Lincoln principal James Flynn is in his first year in that role. Flynn, who most recently served as assistant principal at Maloney High School, described a great opening day. Throughout the day, he would visit various classrooms throughout the Lincoln building.
Flynn’s own summer consisted of acclimating himself to his new middle school role, making introductions to staff members earlier on.
“It’s a good vibe coming in,” Flynn said, noting the previous two days have been devoted to working with staff.
“The focus is student centered. Everything we’re doing is to get these kids ready and be prepared for high school,” Flynn said. Aside from reported issues involving students’ locker combinations, it was an otherwise smooth day.
School Superintendent Mark D. Benigni described overall goals to challenge, engage and support students throughout the course of the entire school year.
“My goal is we will continue to challenge students, and support them throughout the learning process. So that they’re continuing to make academic gains. Also that we’re continuing to have teachers be innovative in trying new things to connect with students. Ultimately that will make a difference for our students in the school system. We must continue to keep the focus on academic development and continuous growth,” Benigni said.
Over at Roger Sherman Elementary School, Anita Gennaro is now in her third year as principal. Wednesday morning’s reopening represented the fruits of planning and coordination, along with a flurry of last minute activities.
Gennaro, who spoke briefly with a reporter that morning, described a smooth return to school.
“I’m happy with the way the first day has started so far,” Gennaro said.
The staffing shortages experienced in other school districts across Connecticut and across the nation do not appear to have similarly impacted Meriden school buildings, with educators reporting new hires and fully staffed classrooms. One area where there are staffing needs is in special education.
Roger Sherman welcomed some new staff, including five teachers and a school psychologist. The school had some visitors, including central office staff, Board of Education members, Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz and some members of the news media.
Unlike past years where Roger Sherman and other schools were unable to hold in-person open houses due to precautions intended to limit the spread of COVID-19, the school once again held an in-person open house for its families.
That helped Roger Sherman open the school year with a reinvigorated sense of community. Gennaro said it was great to see students interacting and families socialize.
“It was really fabulous for them [families] to be able to come into the building and see the classrooms. The past two years we had virtual open houses and it’s just not the same as having the parents come in and really be a part of the community,” Gennaro said, noting that based on past feedback from parents the previous reduced sense of community had been something they felt was lacking.
“But, now that we’re back open. I’m happy to have them. And we’re planning a lot of events for families to come in and be a part of what we do here,” Gennaro said.
In various classrooms, including Cynthia Clement’s second grade classroom, students were introduced to their new classroom routines and expectations.
Clement explained some of the jobs students will have throughout the school year — for example, door holders, which she described as an “important job.” She noted students assigned that task will be responsible for holding the doors for their peers in and out of their classroom and their building. Some of their learning will take place outdoors, with new learning pavilions that were recently installed.
Educators and students do not appear to be the only ones excited to mark a return to school. Officials share that excitement as well.
Board of Education President Robert Kosienski Jr. visited the district’s buildings throughout the day. He described the experience of seeing students’ smiling faces, most of them unmasked, and their enthusiasm, as “therapeutic.
“Also, for me, you see the possibility and opportunity for every single kid,” Kosienski said.