NORWALK — Four years ago, Erin Aymerich was looking for a challenge.

She was an eighth-grade student at Nathan Hale Middle School and, like most 14-year-olds, she thought she had her life all figured out.

“I wanted to be an engineer,” Aymerich said. “I looked up to my dad who is a software engineer, so I was going to go to college, study engineering and become an engineer.”

So, when high school advisers presented the opportunity to attend the Norwalk Early College Academy, which offers high school students the opportunity to earn an associate’s degree from Norwalk Community College in either mobile programming or software engineering, Aymerich figured it was the perfect fit.

And it was, but not in the way she anticipated.

“I learned I don’t actually have a strong passion for engineering,” Aymerich said. “But the program was still a great fit for me. The reason I think I really chose this program is I wanted a challenge.

The opportunity to get free college and challenge myself and the partnership with IBM was really cool. I also really enjoyed engineering at the time. I definitely am glad that I did it, even though I don’t have a strong passion in engineering anymore, and I’m glad I learned that now rather than have spent $60,000 in college to learn that.”

Aymerich will graduate from Norwalk Community College with her associate’s degree in May, and earn her high school diploma from Norwalk High School in June. She’s part of the first cohort of students to complete the NECA program, one of several options for high school students in Norwalk that differs from the traditional high school path most adults remember.

The decision to offer educationally robust choices for high school students is part of the Norwalk Public School District’s three-year strategic operating plan, and part of the effort to close the achievement gap in the district.

As of the current academic year, students can choose from NECA, the new International Baccalaureate program at Brien McMahon High School, the Center for Global Studies, a health care pathway at Brien McMahon, a Digital Media pathway at Norwalk High School and, of course, the traditional high school experience.

NPS Director of School Operations Frank Costanzo said the district has plans to expand the options even further as part of an effort to produce learners and graduates equipped to enter a vastly different economy than the ones their parents entered.

“At the high school level, the former disconnected set of elective’s we believe doesn’t support that vision,” Costanzo said. “We want pathways so that elective credits build and grow in depth and provide more focus. We believe that even younger learners grow toward particularly themes and concepts depending on their interests.”

Costanzo added that providing a variety of options for the high school experience recognizes not all learners are the same.

“Offering different choices becomes even more relevant as technology advances,” Costanzo said. “It breeds engagement when people are actually interested in what they’re learning. It’s the direction that public education has to go.”

The district added the IB diploma program at Brien McMahon this year, offering yet another way for students to learn. Nicole Stockfish, the IB coordinator at Brien McMahon, said the students that choose the program, like those that chose NECA, are looking for something different than the traditional experience. They want something that engages them, and sets them apart when it comes to their post-high school life.

“One of the great things about McMahon right now is that are are multiple paths,” Stockfish said. And there are more coming. Every student isn’t gong to fit into this cookie cutter mold, but to have options for everybody, students are going to do so much better in school if they’re interested in what they’re doing.”

NECA Director Karen Amaker said the varied programs don’t compete with each other for students or success, and said the added benefit is many of the new programs can be individualized to each student.

”It’s great Norwalk Public Schools is giving students and families the opportunity to make a choice,” Amaker said. “Students have lots of options now and NECA is just one of those options. Students have to make these options anyway and we’re giving them a broad opportunity. The benefit is exposure to college and career as early as possible.”

The Center for Global Studies is the oldest alternative high school program in the district — and one of the oldest magnet schools in the state — offering students from all over Connecticut an immersive language and culture experience in addition to traditional high school courses. Director Julie Parham said students in the program excel because they’re studying something that interests them.

”Education, like everything, is not one-size-fits-all,” Parham said. “Whether it’s for academic reasons or personal reasons or social reasons, more choices is always better. And the students who don’t love languages and cultures certainly would not love CGS. But those that do are given the opportunity to thrive here.”; 203-842-2563; @kaitlynkrasselt