DARIEN — Darien schools explored new territories this year. Despite feeling the pressure of a tumultuous state budget, the district saw lessons in race, changes in alcohol education and an alternative high school program that made a difference.

The schools also said goodbye to a senior class, including two members who left too soon.

Here’s a look at some of these highlights.

Alternative school a smashing success

After being initially proposed by Superintendent Dan Brenner last November, Fitch Academy, the district’s new alternative high school program went up and running in September to overwhelmingly positive feedback from students, parents and teachers.

Fitch Academy serves students with long-term medical conditions, attendance issues or students struggling emotionally with the pressure of attending a large high school. The program is temporarily housed in the teen section of the Darien Library and serves 12 students. The district hopes to increase the program’s capacity next year, as well as find a permanent home outside the library.

The pilot program was approved as a line item during the budget season, costing the district $24,000. It has saved the town approximately $175,000 in outplacement costs. In November, the school board voted to make Fitch Academy a permanent program.

Board passes budget in wake of state crisis

In February, the Board of Education approved a $98 million budget, a 4.5 percent increase from the previous school year budget in light of potential budget cut from the state.

The board approved an additional $2.1 million to make up for a portion of the loss in stateside the town faced at the time. The final budget was a $2.2 million increase from the original proposal.

Final costs included an additional $441,000 for new curriculum supervisors, as well as the addition of a second special education curriculum head. The board also approved a $3.2 million budget for priority-one capital projects, including a $1.6 million plan to expand the Darien High School cafeteria.

An elementary school teaches an important lesson about race

Students at Holmes School learned a lesson about racial sensitivity after a child showed up at a school event wearing dark-brown makeup while trying to portray a person of color.

The event was meant for students to honor a hero from a particular region of the United States by dressing up as them for a concert and a “living museum” where they presented as the figure.

The white student was attempting to portray Roberto Clemente, a Puerto Rican baseball player and humanitarian, and wore brown face paint. He participated in both parts of the event, wearing the makeup over the course of the morning of May 26.

Holmes Principal Paula Bleakley said after a parent pointed out the situation, the school addressed the costume choice with the student and his parents and they understand the concerns. While she wouldn’t get into the specifics of how they reacted to this situation, she said, in general, the school tries to take advantage of situations like this to teach students.

The Class of 2017 remembers two lost members

On June 16, Darien High School bid farewell to the class of 2017. Graduates, high school staff and families heard from valedictorian Komal Dhull, as well as salutatorian Indira Flores.

Ceremony attendees also heard from friends of J.R. Schoen and Jacob Velasco-Navarro. Both boys were supposed to graduate with the class of 2017, but their lives were cut short by cancer. Schoen died in 2008 at age 9 from an incurable brain tumor. Velasco-Navarro died several years later, in 2013, of rhabdomyosarcoma, a form of cancer found in the muscle tissue.

During a special remembrance at graduation, the boys’ friends released butterflies, a nod to Schoen, who loved to catch them, as flute music played softly in the background.

A new commitment policy comes into play

After finding their old ways ineffective at combatting underage drinking, the Board of Education helped implement a new policy to teach students about the effects of underage drinking

A new high school policy required an estimated 600 students and their parents to complete substance abuse education course by mid-September in order to be eligible to take part in after-school activities. Failure to complete the course will bar students from participating in sports or clubs.

The new course and accompanying policy replaces “the commitment,” a policy set in place to discipline students caught drinking off school grounds. The district removed this policy after finding it wasn’t effective in reducing teen drinking. The goal of this new policy is not to replace “the commitment,” but to educate students and their parents about the dangers of substance use.

ekayata@hearstmediact.com; @erin_kayata