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Biden Nominee’s School District Prioritizes Digital Equity

Connecticut's public schools are leading the way in digital education during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Superintendent Mark Benigni
Meriden Public Schools Superintendent Mark Benigni shows students how to use their devices during the 2018-19 school year.
Meriden Public Schools
The Connecticut Department of Education and Meriden Public Schools recently made headlines when President Joe Biden announced former Meriden educator and Connecticut Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona as his pick for education secretary.

But the district was already in the process of a digital overhaul years before the importance of ed tech came into focus during the COVID-19 pandemic. Superintendent Mark Benigni said his district has prioritized modernization and digital equity for over a decade now. It was this work that earned Benigni the EmpowerED Digital Superintendent Award in 2019 and gave Meriden Public Schools a head start in preparing for the shift to remote learning to come.
“Throughout the years, our Board of Education has supported our digital transformation with an equity lens by changing policies to allow for student-centered and distance learning,” he said. “Our guiding principle is, regardless of socioeconomic status or prior learning experiences, all students must be able to access digital resources to expand their world.”
The district only had a “handful” of devices for students in 2010 when Benigni first took the helm. The district worked to reallocate limited resources and funding to provide each student with a device that would enable them to continue learning from home and throughout the summer.
“For Meriden, it has never been about the device – it’s about leveling the playing field and embedding high-quality digital content in the core curriculum,” the former principal and former Meriden mayor said.
Benigni believes the COVID-19 era reinforced the need to provide “anytime, anywhere learning opportunities” and find ways to enable and enhance learning outside of the classroom.
He said Wi-Fi access for all, putting technology in the hands of students and digital content through a single sign-on are all crucial to an engaging learning experience.
“The pandemic provided us with an opportunity to take a deeper look at authentic student engagement and individual goal attainment. Students are thriving in gaming-rich environments,” he said. “Game-based learning has moved well beyond The Oregon Trail, but the concepts of engagement, immediate feedback and individual targets are why gamification needs to play a key role in learning.
“Technology has also brought the world into the hands of our students,” he continued. “Without leaving their classrooms, all students can hike Mt. Everest, explore the solar system or even dive in the Great Barrier Reef.”
Just as students are learning from teachers, teachers are learning how to be proficient in this digital environment.
“In addition to numerous professional learning opportunities we have both in person and virtual, we also have technology teachers in every school. The district has also provided tiered professional development as we recognize, like our students, our teachers are at all different levels,” he said, adding that teachers are also learning from each other.
“None of us wanted to be put in this place, but we made the most of it,” he said. “The pandemic has forced all of us to look differently at education and the role technology and access can play in supporting learning.”
The work taking place in Meriden is just one small example of broader digital education efforts, according to Doug Casey, executive director of the state’s Commission for Educational Technology.
Casey said Connecticut has worked toward digital equity for the past two decades. The Commission developed Connecticut’s state ed tech plan, which addresses digital learning in K-12 schools and higher education.
A report released this spring on the state of K-12 technology in Connecticut indicated that most middle and high schools in the state already have 1:1 computer programs and assistance with Internet connectivity. Meanwhile, other states have struggled to reach similar milestones.
These efforts were bolstered by Gov. Lamont’s Everybody Learns initiative, which utilized $45 million in CARES Act funding to help provide a computer and home Internet connection for every student who needed one.
“Connecticut purchased and has seen the delivery of 142,000 devices this fall —  extraordinary news considering global supply-chain delays,” Casey said. “We have provided for more than 40,000 home broadband connections, and thousands of students now have home Internet access to attend remote classes, check and complete assignments and stay connected to their teachers and classmates.”
Over the summer, Casey said state education officials collaborated with the city of New Haven and Southern Connecticut State University on the launch of Eduroam to connect tens of thousands of students across New Haven Public Schools, SCSU, Yale, the University of New Haven and other institutions.
While Casey said he hopes for a safe return to brick-and-mortar schools, technology will continue to play a central role in districts like Benigni’s.
“My expectation, or at least hope, is that leaders fully leverage the investments that they have made in technology for teaching and learning,” he said. "Students especially need meaningful problems to address, the opportunity to take on engineering, ethics, political or other types of challenges to equip them for advanced learning and careers.
“Technology supports that work in the ‘real world,’ and integrating digital learning tools and approaches can make education more meaningful and relevant.”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.