New alternative high school program thriving
DARIEN — On a Friday afternoon, many Darien High School students are taking tests or zoning out in class, daydreaming about their weekend plans.
However, students at Fitch Academy, the district’s new alternative high school program, may be on a field trip to Chelsea Piers for team-building activities or going to the Google headquarters in New York City to tour the space.
These sort of immersive, interactive experiences are a way the program, headed by Darien High School English teacher Lynda Sorensen, is appealing to learners who thrive outside a traditional classroom setting.
“We see Fitch Academy as a broad education,” Soresen said. “It’s not just a classroom experience, but experiencing the community around you. Having hands-on learning, we feel, takes place in very different ways. Going on a field trip, I think it’s very inspiring to leave the classroom and go out in the real world. We hope kids drive these field trips as well. We want to empower our students.”
Fitch Academy was proposed by Superintendent Dan Brenner in November as a way to keep students with long-term medical conditions, attendance issues or emotional struggles in the district. The program launched its first year on the first day of school on Aug. 31 with nine students, though Sorensen said they are in the process of accepting more so the program may meet its maximum capacity of 12 students.
“This is a pilot,” Brenner said at a school board meeting in April. “We’re looking to set this up, create a meaningful program, work through issues and do it to a scale we can manage.”
The students in the program range from freshmen to seniors. Many of them are students who had attendance issues while at the traditional high school program and struggled with the rigidity and stress of the high school schedule. Having a mix of students together in a small group has been a challenge, but successful, according to Sorensen.
“They seem to have congealed,” she said. “They are respectful of each other, and it’s moving to me.”
The program is being housed in the Darien Library in what is one of the first collaborations of its kind in the nation. The district is paying the library $24,000 to rent the teen lounge, as well as a computer lounge that serves as a seminar room, for the year. The plan moving forward is to find a new space for the second year of the program.
Students at Fitch Academy have a slightly different schedule than students in the traditional high school program. In the mornings, they have two 90-minute academic classes. On Mondays and Wednesdays, they have history and science and on Tuesdays and Thursdays, they have English and math. The courses are taught by teachers who come from the high school and use independent and small group work to teach to the levels of the three freshmen, two juniors and four seniors in the program.
The students have 45 minutes of world language in the afternoon. Fridays are reserved for field trips, as well as speakers and stress reduction activities such as tai chi, yoga and meditation.
Sorensen said the longer class periods allow more flexibility for the students, many of whom struggled with the stricter schedule at the high school.
“It doesn’t feel so segmented,” she said. “You have substantial time to do reading, writing and thinking.”
Between class blocks, the students have a “flex” period where a counselor comes in to discuss the college application process, as well as general topics like world news. In the afternoon, students take electives. Sorensen is helping the students undertake independent projects to work on during this time. These projects will be presented at the library at midterms.
The independent projects will involve extensive research and play into the individual interests of the students. One student is interested in the withdrawal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and wants to do a film where she interviews children enrolled in the program. Other students are looking into making video games or short story collections. The hope is students will be motivated by doing projects from their own interests and not for the sake of merely getting a grade from a teacher.
“From our point of view, we don’t want projects just to be personal projects,” Sorensen said. “We want kids to help each other and give feedback and then share them.”
Sharing the project at the library plays into the program’s goal of the students continuing to be part of the Darien community. Students in Fitch Academy can still participate in after-school programs and even take classes at the high school, thanks to a district van that can transport students to Darien High School facilities, though Sorensen said the logistics of aligning Fitch students’ schedules with the high school’s is one of the things the program is still trying to work out.
Sorensen (who will return to DHS in the winter, teaching a creative writing course) said she’s also adjusting to working in the library, though said the transition has been “wonderful” so far, with weekly check-ins with library Director Alan Kirk Gray. She said the library has been willing to let students use some of its equipment, like telescopes. She credits having the program at a separate facility to part of the reason it’s been working so well.
While Fitch Academy is still in its very early stages, Sorensen said she hopes to see the program continue and even see aspects of it incorporated into the traditional high school structure, where many of the students suffer from anxiety due to the high-stress environment.
“None of us know the future, but two things have taken me by surprise,” she said. “One is that we’re at maximum capacity. So I’m aware of the need. The other things: When I met these students .. .they’re so different from when we started. They’re so animated. I could not have dreamed of this place, this all-encompassing, but challenging place. I could never dream they needed it so badly. To see them thriving is seriously remarkable.”