Alternative high school would attend to students struggling emotionally
DARIEN — The proposed education budget for the upcoming year includes $30,000 custodial support, supplies and utilities for an alternative high school program the board hopes to open as soon as this fall.
Superintendent Dr. Dan Brenner has spearheaded the effort to bring this program to Darien high School. Brenner has a proven track record with alternative schools: he spent eight years working at the Village School, an alternative school in Great Neck, NY before helping found Hilltop Academy at his old district in Roslyn, NY.
Brenner describes the students at his prior schools as students who learning at grade-level, but often had some sort of emotional problem which made them better suited for an alternative setting.
“They probably had purple or green hair, more piercings than the average student and they were less athletic and more likely to skip out on gym class,” he said. “But they were intelligent.”
Darien’s proposed program would similarly serve students in grades 9-12 and would be an offshoot program of the high school. Students would learn the same high school curriculum, but through alternative learning methods.
Staff assignments to the program would also be voluntarily. Based on research, Brenner’s recommended there be at least one full time staff member fully dedicated to the program and to assume a leadership role. However, the staff and student body would stay small, in order to encourage the student-teacher relationship.
Placement in the program would be voluntary and decided upon with parents and teachers. The program’s sole focus would be serving the needs of students with emotional issues.
“It can’t be a school for everyone, Brenner said. “You need to pick a population and serve that population. It can’t be a place to send the students you don’t want. It has to be seen as a place that’s there to support kids.”
Brenner said a vital component of the program would be focusing on the mental health of the students.
“You don’t need to be special ed student to be struggling emotionally,” Brenner said. “When you make that decision to no longer be in traditional high school, that’s a difficult decision to make and certainly comes with feelings. At very base we need to help students with that.”
The board assembled a “profile” of what a student at this program would look like, based on speaking to current Darien High School students. From these interviews where Brenner heard what he described as “heart wrenching” stories, emotional struggles were identified as a concern for the high school student body.
“The student is one that would be struggling emotionally at high school which is often reflected in grades, but not always,” Brenner said later in a phone interview.
He also added the student’s emotional struggles could be related to mental health ailments like anxiety or depression or due to external factors, like a stressful situation at home. Students could also attend the program for a short period of time, such as a semester, if they felt they needed support during a specific time.
According to Brenner, the students this program would be serving would not have behavioral or substance abuse problems, but struggle emotionally, whether it was a long term problem or situational.
A committee has been formed at the high school to identify this population, as well as share curriculum ideas and look at other alternative school programs in the area. The school would be the first of its district reference group.
The committee is also searching for a location for the school. Brenner said part of the struggle is finding a facility equipped to handle students. The building housing this program would need a sprinkler system, accessible bathrooms and ramps, among other accommodations for students.
Brenner said research shows programs like this do better when separated from mainstream programs, ruling out the high school as a location option.
Board member Michael J. Burke asked if the program would consider grades 10-12 so students in ninth grade could decide then whether or not the alternative school would be for them.
“If you have those learners start at the high school, they can have that bedrock experience and determine whether or not they’d be interested in a lottery system or however they’d be selected there as opposed to being in eighth grade/middle school and having choice between high school where everyone is going or this new experience,” Burke said.
Brenner said the choice to attend wouldn’t be the student’s alone, but a joint decision with teachers and parents based on the student’s circumstances.
Board member Kathrine Stein asked about how long it would take to get the school up and running and how long before it could be opened to students outside the district. Brenner said it could be fully functioning by its second year and could accept students outside the district as soon as its third year. However, the primary focus would be on attending to Darien students.
“When a student really needs to be placed out of district, when offered to go to Darien public school, that’s a very powerful choice,” he said. “I’m not proposing this for financial perks. I think it’s a great windfall for the district, but I’m proposing this because I think there’s a group of Darien students who would thrive in something like this.”
Brenner also told board member Christa McNamara when asked that while he’s unsure if the program would be part of Darien’s DRG, he did know there aren’t any other DRG/district alternatives for students in need.
“I can’t emphasize enough the difference a program like this would make in some kids’ lives,” he said.