Officials: Pilot alternative school program thrives
Published 12:00 am, Friday, October 20, 2017
DARIEN — The district’s new alternative high school program is already reaching capacity within several weeks of opening.
Lynda Sorensen, lead teacher at Fitch Academy, along with school psychologist Eileen Whalen, presented an update to the school board at an Oct. 10 meeting that showed the new program is thriving.
“It’s wonderful to catch them on a break and outside of class and talk to them,” Sorensen said. “Many of them are still struggling with issues, but I think we can have conversations with them and attend to some of their struggles besides their academics.”
The program is saving the district $150,000 to $175,000 in outpatient costs, 100 hours of homebound tutoring and additional transportation costs, according to Whalen and Sorensen’s presentation.
Whalen and Sorensen said many of the students currently at Fitch suffer from health and attendance issues. However, the ability to work with students in a smaller setting has enabled them to reach out more and address these issues on an individual level. Whalen said they will email students and encourage them to come in for a portion of the day if they’re struggling to come to school and Whalen once went to a student’s home to check in on them after they’d been absent a few days. Students may also be issued gentle reminders about the importance of arriving at school on time.
“It’s a lot of case management,” Whalen said. “It’s a lot of involvement with the head nurse. The struggles are similar with a lot of the students, but we see incremental improvement.”
These students would have previously had at-home tutoring, spent the day at the nurse’s office and not been socially engaged. In Fitch, they’ve become to flourish as the focus shifts to addressing curriculum in a way that will make the students love learning.
Sorensen and Whalen said students beginning to re-engage in school has been one of the highlights of Fitch Academy. The program has also gained the support of the parents, which Sorensen keeps engaged with weekly newsletters and open houses. So far, parents have expressed immense gratitude for the program.
“One thing I think was so extraordinary was the enthusiasm of parents,” Whalen said. “Their child was already having a positive school experience and they felt part of the community. I don’t know if we could overstate that enough.”
The program, in its first year, has also not been without its challenges. The program is currently housed at the Darien Library for a $24,000 rental fee. However, the rental is only for a year and the program will need a new home the following year. Superintendent Dan Brenner said it’s important the program be on a campus separate from the high school to create a more positive experience for students.
While Sorensen said the library staff has been accommodating, with director Alan Kirk Gray checking in on the students often, space is limited in what it can provide by way of electives, including science labs and art classes.
Sorensen said it’s also been hard to find staff members to meet and design interdisciplinary work for the students. Fitch Academy is currently made up of five seniors, two juniors and four freshmen all taught in the same classroom. The program currently has a little over 2 FTE staff members teaching students history, science, Spanish, math and English.
Sorensen said teachers currently keep in touch about Fitch classes through email.
Moving forward, the district is looking at the budget implications of the program, as well as where it will reside next. They’re also considering the growth of staff and students, though board members noted it’s important the program allows no more than 24 to 25 students to maintain the intimacy that’s helping it grow so well.
It’d been previously suggested the district might take students from outside the district to help the program turn a profit. However, given the current wait list for Fitch, it was decided students in Darien should get to utilize the program.
Further budget discussions about Fitch Academy will continue in November.