Each year, the national publication Education Week shines a spotlight on some of the nation’s most outstanding school district leaders in its Leaders To Learn From special report. The 2015 group of 16 exceptional district-level leaders who are tackling some of the most pressing challenges in K-12 education includes Meriden Superintendent of Schools Mark Benigni, the only Connecticut education leader chosen. The 16 educators were selected because their work is highlighted by “ideas and strategies that are yielding strong results that can be borrowed, adapted, and put to successful use in other school systems,” according to the publication.
In Meriden, 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 five states – Connecticut, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York, and Tennessee. In Connecticut, Meriden has been involved with the initiative since 2012.
“It’s not just getting more time for the sake of time. It’s getting that time to do the enrichment activities that we know our students love and enjoy. That’s what school should be about – exciting and inspiring kids,“ Benigni said. “And the results have been tremendous.” He cites “improved attendance, improved academics, improved feelings about the school climate and culture, but most importantly we have happy kids.”
In selecting Benigni, Education Week noted that “as 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.”
As superintendent of the 9,100-student Meriden school district, Benigni has orchestrated initiatives like full-day kindergarten, Saturday enrichment academies, and increased time for teacher collaboration, Education Week pointed out. Also highlighted were his efforts advocating 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.”
“Most notably,” his selection as one of the 16 Leaders of 2015, was prompted by bringing the expanded learning time initiative 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.”
Benigni began his career as a special education teacher in Meriden, was an assistant principal in the neighboring Berlin district, and served his hometown of Meriden as a city councilor, and then mayor. He returned to the district as superintendent in 2010, after two years as a high school principal in the nearby Cromwell district.
Describing the selection project, Education Week notes that "in school districts across the country, education leaders are using innovative strategies to improve curriculum and instruction, address management challenges, stretch resources, engage parents and communities, utilize new technologies effectively, and create optimal learning environments that prepare all students for success beyond their K-12 years."
Benigni is the first Connecticut education leader selected since 2013, when Connecticut Technical High School System administrator Patricia Ciccone, who served as the superintendent of the 11,000-student technical high school system from 2003 until retiring in December 2012, was among that year's 16 Leaders to Learn From.
“I always knew education was my passion,” Benigni said. “Even as mayor, it was about what I could do to better the lives of people, and most importantly, students.”