The state’s newly minted commissioner of education recently received some schooling in the art of innovation during a visit to the Shelton Intermediate School.

Miguel A. Cardona, who was appointed to the commissioner post in August by Gov. Ned Lamont, was greeted at the intermediate school on Oct. 8 with a performance by the school’s chorus, followed by a tour of the SIS School of Innovation and a round table discussion about the district’s ExCel program.

"The commissioner's visit shows an interest in what educators in Shelton are doing,” said school Superintendent Chris Clouet. “We have a lot to be proud of — our Shelton School of Innovation and our work with EL (English Language) students via the ExcEL Project are among them.”

School of Innovation students walked Cardona throughout the area designated for this specialized learning, including the more hands-on parts of the program featuring a garden laboratory and other science and technology-based projects.

The School of Innovation has its own area of the SIS building, and Cardona toured many of the specialized classrooms, one of which is the student-designed reading room.

Clouet said that the School of Innovation is a place “where excellence meets creativity,” as students use the four Cs of 21st century skills — communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity. Clouet said that the school provides an experience tailored to learning preferences and the specific interests of different learners, with flexible scheduling to meet the learning needs of students.

Board of Education Chairman Mark Holden, who joined the tour, said this innovative learning environment has led to higher attendance and test scores.

"The school offers hands-on learning opportunities,” said Holden. “It is not best for everyone, but it is great for many.”

The program was formed three years ago, spearheaded by Clouet, who was still new to the district, and then-intermediate school Principal Ken Saranich.

“We felt that a change was needed in how we educate children,” said Saranich, now the district’s assistant superintendent. “To meet the needs of students entering the 21st century, it was time to make a change. There is a world of new challenges, new opportunities, and students’ skill sets need to be adaptable. Education needs to adapt to an ever-changing world, that is what we are doing here.”

The School of Innovation and the traditional school of excellence model run in the building simultaneously. Students are chosen for the School of Innovation through a lottery. Students can choose to opt out, and Clouet said there are children on a waiting list ready to fill spots.

"The (School of Innovation) is reflective of our student body,” said Clouet, adding that this innovative opportunity has been a positive experience for those special needs students as well.

"The biggest takeaway from this school is the level of engagement by students,” added Saranich. “They know they are investing in their own education, and it shows in their study habits, desire to attend and the results produced.”

There are 200 students in the School of Innovation now, and the numbers are based on how many instructors they can employ for the classes.

Saranich said he had wanted to change the educational offerings for years, and it was Clouet’s arrival that prompted the creation of a model that involves a lot more than flexible scheduling, with student preferences dictating the curriculum. There are projects and themes and a liberal use of technology.

Shelton officials say the program costs no more than the traditional classroom. Program development was built in existing summer curriculum development time. Students still get language arts, math, science and social studies, but not as distinct courses.

For the most part, the school has done away with class periods. Teachers work together on lessons based on a theme of the week. Work is recorded on digital portfolios. On Fridays, students demonstrate what they learn in any number of ways.

“We are preparing students for the 21st century,” Clouet said.

From the School of Innovation, Cardona went to a round table talk on the district’s ExCel program. The district completed its third annual Summer Institute, sponsored by the ExcEL Leadership Academy (the capitalized E and L stand for English Learners; students whose families speak a language other than English at home).

“The ExcEL Leadership Academy is a grant-funded project that highlights Shelton public schools’ leadership role in the region,” said Clouet. “We recognize that our students, all of them, want to master English. The techniques we work on and share are helpful for recent arrivals as well as all students.”

brian.gioiele@hearstmediact.com