The bulk of Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting was taken up by a lengthy update and discussion on Fitch Academy, the alternate education program in its pilot year at DHS. The board is getting updates on a nearly biweekly basis, as the decision about whether or not the program will move forward likely will have to come before the budget season arrives. Superintendent Dr. Dan Brenner, School Psychologist Eileen Whalen, and lead teacher at Fitch Linda Sorensen delivered the information.

Fitch Academy currently resides at the Darien Library and has a total of 12 students, with three more on the waiting list. The program is designed to serve a population of students who have attendance issues or simply have other stressors that make it challenging to make it to DHS. After early success, Sorensen and Whalen said they have had parent inquiries about openings, as well as inquiries from other teachers and counselors, and even students referring their friends.

Looking ahead, a number of logistical issues need attention. The library will not be able to house the program in coming years, as the agreement was for one year and the program is scheduled to grow from 12 students to 24. Sorensen said, “I’m going to miss the library, it’s such a wonderful group there,” and added that a number of library staff members have developed strong connections to the program and students.

The new space has not yet been found. Brenner said some of the struggles have been to find a space that is handicapped accessible, with handicapped accessible bathrooms, and a sprinkler system. Brenner also said the target space would likely have to be about 2500 square feet. While it sounded like there are locations that are possible, none were far enough along in discussions to be named specifically at the meeting.

Along with space, staffing needs to be looked at. Since the program is growing to 24, Brenner said the staff would increase to four with an included .5 FTE social worker or school psychologist. The goal would be to have dual certified staff to allow more flexibility in scheduling.

Brenner also brought up the possibility of opening the program to students outside the district, saying that both previous times he has instituted a program like this, it has becomes a revenue stream for the district. “We are not the only one with this need,” Brenner said, offering New Canaan, Wilton, Westport, and Weston as examples. Brenner said it would be offered at a price point that is less than competing programs, while offering a full day program. Brenner also added the caveat that outside students would never be taken at the expense of a Darien student.

Brenner then ran down the costs of the growth next year. There is the addition of two FTE teachers and the cost of the space which has yet to be determined for 24 students. The two additional teachers would cost between $160,000 and $180,000. There is also the reduction in outplacement costs, which Brenner estimated this year as a $150,000 to $175,000 savings to the district. Brenner estimated that number would double, “and that might be conservative,” to $300,000 to $350,000 in outplacement savings. The revenue stream of out of district students would be $35,000 to $50,000 per student, and the number used for a population of outside students was four. Totaled, Brenner said the next year likely works out to a net zero.

Members of the board were looking to get a clearer picture as they make a decision about the program. Board member Christa McNamara asked for a more specific look at how the savings numbers calculated. Brenner said he would offer as much information as he could, but cautioned that such a small student population makes it difficult, as if he starts naming specific programs and savings it could reveal the identity of students. McNamara also urged Brenner and the Fitch staff to consider security as they look at their location as well as the vetting process for volunteers.

Debra Ritchie asked for a more specific look at the classroom experience, noting that there are students ranging from freshmen to seniors in the program. A math teacher trying to teach to each level would no doubt be challenging. Sorensen and Brenner said that program growth and additional dual certified staff would actually help address that issue, as it would allow for more small group instruction. Katherine Stein brought up all that will be lost by leaving the library, including access to technology, whiteboards, and other facility possibilities like a kitchen or office space. Dennis Maroney asked that if the program grows to 24 and they allow outside students, it would make sense to enroll 18 students with the room to grow so that there is always room for Darien students. Brenner said this approach was a good one, as a number of families decide to start the year at DHS and then ultimately decide that Fitch is a better place.

The board decided to have Brenner come back with more specifics about these logistical questions and issues at either the next meeting or the following. The decision about whether or not to take the program out of pilot status needs to happen before the budget season, so that budget time can be used to fine tune the numbers associated with the program growth.