Alternate education: Darien's Fitch Academy program moves cautiously forward

The alternative program known as Fitch Academy has begun to take slow steps forward towards becoming a reality.

With the Board of Finance accepting the revised Board of Education budget and only an Representative Town Meeting vote remaining for final approval, Superintendent Dr. Dan Brenner has begun the process of identifying students who are strong candidates for Fitch Academy.

A presentation given to the Board of Education in February outlined the program said students with health concerns, chronic illness, attendance issues, or students overwhelmed by the large high school setting, among other issues, would be those best served by the program. The idea would be for these students to be part of a smaller, more comfortable learning environment where they felt supported.

Currently, these issues are addressed at Darien High School by offering the struggling student an adjusted or shortened schedule, a reduced course load that may include pass/no credit classes, home instruction, and involvement from counselors, school psychologists, or other administrators.d“At this point, we have legitimate interest from 11 students already,” said Brenner. Brenner also reiterated that the district has committed to having no more than 12 students as part of the program in its first year. That cap would become 25 students if the first year was successful, and the number would never exceed 25 beyond that.

“It’s also ok not to start with 12, because it will give folks at high school chance to place kids as needs emerge,” Brenner said.

Students who are part of the program initially may eventually move back to within the high school, which would open spots as well.

“This is a pilot. We’re not looking to have 50 kids and be turning kids away in the first year,” said Brenner.

Brenner also said that as of yet, they have not identified who will teach at Fitch Academy, although current DHS teachers are still expected to be the pool from which Fitch Academy teachers will be drawn. Brenner said there have also been ongoing meetings with the staff at the Darien Library, which is where Fitch Academy will be held.

Of the initial 11 students with legitimate interest, Brenner said, “This is not a heavily loaded special education population. Mostly general ed students.”

The goal for the program has always been that it not be a specifically special education program, but rather for students who were struggling with the rigors and environment of working within Darien High School.

The students were identified by administrators and the counseling staff.

“We did not open to the staff as a whole. Did not ask teachers to identify, and that’s purposeful,” said Brenner, reiterating that this year was a pilot, and it was important to keep numbers small. “We are trying to set up and create a meaningful program, and do it in a scale we can manage,” Brenner said.

Brenner said meetings were held with the identified students and their parents, and legitimate interest is there for 11 students.

The overall feeling about the update on the progress was positive. “This is good news. This is validating the need that we identified,” Brenner said, adding later, “We are well on our way and feeling very good about the response and reception in the school community.”