School & District Management Opinion

Leading A Student-Centered Agenda: 10 Lessons from Mark Benigni

By Tom Vander Ark — February 07, 2018 3 min read
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Meriden is a small Connecticut urban center between Hartford and New Haven that has grown more diverse and economically challenged as it has struggled to create an automation economy identity.

Dr. Mark Benigni grew up in Meriden. He served four terms as mayor before taking over the two-high-school district as superintendent in 2010.

Recognized as a leader in blended and online learning, Meriden Public Schools has developed an impressive vision of Student-Centered Learning.

In our discussion, Benigni noted 10 lessons that made him an EdWeek Leader to Learn From.

  1. Hire great people: experienced, emotionally intelligent and pro-innovation.
  2. Create a partnership with employee groups and bring them into the leadership conversation.
  3. Learn from other districts. Mark is co-chair of the state urban superintendents association and is heavily involved in their learning agenda. He visits with other superintendents and invites them to Meriden to discuss the path forward.
  4. Cultivate board support. Meriden has benefited from and supported a thoughtful and productive board.
  5. Phase the work. Mark appointed a capable change manager, supported development of new policies, developed a model school, phased in 1:1 device access and provided check-out hot spots.
  6. Make the vision-specific. The leadership team shared specific pictures (look fors) of student-centered learning for students and teachers. For teachers, this means “providing more questions than answers, engaging and wrestling with the work.”
  7. Share data with everyone (Benigni created an open exchange).
  8. Engage parents and community.
  9. Tell your story. Benigni developed foundation support for the work by describing the path forward.
  10. Don’t let money stop you. “Never let the budget deter you from the right work,” said Benigni.

On the path forward, Mark plans to expand anytime anywhere learning and personalized pathways for HS students by giving students more voice and choice.

He appreciates the work of the Great Schools Partnership but acknowledges that progress on competency-based learning is a heavy lift, especially in high school. He points to Meriden’s no-zero grading policy as a sign of progress. “We’re not going to write kids off, we’re not going to have dead ends.”

On what he’d do differently, Benigni said he recognizes now that not everyone can move at the same place. He’d create even more personalized learning opportunities for staff.

For aspiring EdLeaders, Mark recommends the superintendency, saying “there’s nothing more rewarding.” He also found his leadership experience as mayor a valuable broadening experience. “It helped me be a collaborative leader.”

Key Takeaways:

[1:18] Where they’re located in Connecticut and a little bit about the schools.
[1:39] The changes Mark has seen in both the city of Meriden and the school system.
[2:10] Their school system that serves an economically challenged population.
[2:57] What Mark thinks he got right in his first couple of years as a new Superintendent.
[5:13] Working collaboratively with other school districts -- Mark’s take on working with other urban Superintendents and districts in Connecticut.
[6:34] Looking back, what Mark would do differently in his years as a Superintendent.
[7:38] Personalized learning efforts at Meriden Public Schools.
[9:20] How Mark framed and managed the shift of becoming a blended emphasized learning leader.
[11:32] Background on the initiative from a few years back when they refocused on student-centered learning.
[13:30] What a good example of student-centered learning looks like in Mark’s district.
[15:10] How are Meriden schools thinking about the shift to competency-based learning.
[16:41] How competency-based learning is a long-term shift and the steps they’re taking towards it.
[19:45] What’s on the horizon for Meriden.
[21:07] Would Mark encourage other people to take on the position of a Superintendent?
[21:49] What Mark would encourage people to learn if they’re interested in becoming a Superintendent.

Mentioned in This Episode:

  • Meriden Public Schools

  • John Barry Elementary School
    For more, see:

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  • The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.