Bennet, the Manchester, Connecticut, middle school that does "whatever it takes," readies for another school year of finding ways to help a diverse group of students succeed. Included: A description of some of Bennet's challenges, and a virtual tour of Bennet Middle School.
See all articles in this series in the Whatever It Takes archive.
"Welcome to Bennet Middle School -- the place that does whatever it takes."
That sign, in various sizes and typefaces, is everywhere in the grade 6 to 8 school in Manchester, Connecticut -- taped on century-old walls, pinned to bulletin boards, and clinging to peeling paint.
For Bennet staff members, who teach a diverse population at opposite ends of the economic spectrum in five buildings long past their prime, "doing whatever it takes" means knowing their students' abilities and challenges and adapting to the problems of aging infrastructure.
About 54 percent of the 750-member student body is comprised of students of color; the population will fluctuate throughout the year. The school has a migration rate of about 16 percent. Five elementary schools, three of which are Title I schools, feed into Bennet, one of two middle schools in the district.
So doing "whatever it takes" means tweaking lesson plans for a class that includes a child with Down's Syndrome and one who is reading Homer's Odyssey on her own, and making the class meaningful for both of them.
It means rehashing different permutations of schedules at team meetings, to give kids a change of pace.
It means sweating out late summer days in brick-walled classrooms with no air conditioning and one fan to stir up the sticky air. Massive windows rarely are open more than a foot, because they are at the right height and width for several middle schoolers to fall through. Or for that matter, a small rhinoceros.
It means evacuating 650 students from classrooms when a section of ceiling collapsed after water leaked through the roof. That was the second chunk of ceiling in that building to fall in three months.
It means collecting socks for kids who have perpetually wet or frozen feet in the winter from sloshing between buildings, as well as coats, pants, gloves, and shoes for those who can't afford them. Proceeds from Faculty Dress-Down Days, when people donate money to dress more casually, go to a fund to buy fuel or replace furnaces for families who have no heat in the winter.
It means placing wake-up calls to homes to ensure youths have no excuse for not getting to school on time, and even washing clothes.
IT STARTS AT THE TOP
Bennet staff members have internalized the school's slogan, in large part because of the leadership of principal Kathleen Ouellette. The self-described "Bennet cheerleader," Ms. Oullette is ever-present and ever-hands-on. Since taking over as principal in 1999, staff morale and test scores have improved. In 1999, the retention rate for faculty was about 60 percent. Now it is about 90 percent.
New staff members and accountability practices were put in place, as well as teacher trainers to work with less experienced educators.
"The staff is incredible. This is a reflection of Kathy Ouellette's direction; it truly is a changed school," said language arts teacher Jenna Brohinsky, the team leader for the seventh grade Royal 7 team. "She has dramatically reduced staff turnover. As a result, we have a stable group. Teachers share and are very supportive."
Scores on the Connecticut Mastery Tests, which are standardized tests administered to fourth, sixth, and eighth graders, also have shown improvement.
"In this century old building, there is a lot of great stuff going on," interim superintendent Anne Marie Mistretta said.
COPING WITH A CAMPUS
Besides the challenges teachers face in the classroom, the school's physical plant has a tremendous impact on student scheduling and faculty planning.
Bennet is comprised of five buildings, giving it the look of a mini college campus. Four buildings form a courtyard, and a fifth is on its own across the street. Each grade has all its academic classes in one building, but students must trek to other buildings for music, art, technical education, physical education, and in some cases, lunch.
Manchester's board of education has been debating whether to replace or renovate Bennet.
Four of the buildings are close to a century old, and look it. They were built about 1913 by a wealthy local family, the Cheney's, after a fire destroyed much of the neighborhood in 1911. The Cheney's donated the land and built an elementary, middle, and technical school and recreation center. The Cheney's were determined that the new schools be fire proof, which explains their fortress-like appearances.
The buildings' architecture, as wells as many of the window panes, fixtures, and other accents, would draw oohs and ahs from architectural historians, but not from people educating 11-to-14-year-olds.
Franklin, the building which fronts the city's Main Street, and houses the sixth graders and main office, has a look of stately obsolescence. Franklin is impressive yet worn, a near-Victorian-era castle across from a car dealership. The main office is a mixture of fluorescent lights and exposed pipes.
Three small cafeterias are located downstairs. In the interest of timeliness and reducing strays, faculty members usually escort groups of students to and from lunch.
Barnard, which has had roof problems of late, is attached to Franklin by an enclosed corridor called the Cone Building, constructed in 1976, which houses the media center, gym, computer center, and audio-visual center.
Across from Cone is the Rec Center, a city recreation facility converted to classroom space, and still used as a recreation center nights and weekends. The building includes a gymnasium on the third floor, modeled after the Payne Whitney Gymnasium at Yale University, which has a jogging oval on the roof. The Bennet gym includes a chute-shaped, circular track suspended above the gym floor.
The gym's location means class and testing schedules in the building have to be scrutinized to ensure they don't coincide with gym classes, so basketballs and feet are not pounding above concentrating heads.
A former technical school, called the Cheney Building, is across the street, and is home to technology education, art, music, and life management courses. Students use a crosswalk to get to and from the building, and during periods of heavy rain or extreme cold, class changes can be suspended until there is a break in the weather.
"It's terrible that we educate kids in such dilapidated conditions," Ms. Ouellette said.
And yet, the buildings hum with determination. Parents are pleased with Bennet's program, even if the facilities leave something to be desired.
The opening of school almost was delayed because a 4-foot-by-4-foot chunk of ceiling came crashing down in a Barnard stairwell in July. But repair work was completed on time, and Bennet was ready for yet another year in its long history.