With the school year getting underway in only a matter of weeks, a number of changes are being unveiled throughout the district. One such change that is particularly groundbreaking is Fitch Academy, the alternative program that will be offered at Darien High School. Principal Ellen Dunn updated the Board of Education on where Fitch Academy stands at a recent meeting.

Fitch Academy is an alternative program for students with health concerns, chronic illness, attendance issues, or students overwhelmed by the large high school setting, among other issues. These are target students which 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. Until now, the only options for these students were home instruction, shortened schedules, pass/fail courses, and involvement from counselors and other support staff.

A successful alternative program is an important step in reducing the number of outplaced students for any school district.

Dunn opened by saying Fitch Academy is, “making excellent progress.”  Administrators met with a number of students and their families on June 9, before school was let out for the summer. An information session was held as well.

“Currently we have seven families committed to beginning at Fitch on August 31,” said Dunn. These are students in grade nine and grade twelve.

Fitch Academy is to be located at the Darien Library, and Dunn said the relationship that has developed with library staff is outstanding. Julia Holdenfield, a former DHS student, is serving as the liaison between the library and Fitch Academy. An open house for the participating families was held on August 14. Families were given a tour of the library, including the two dedicated rooms the program will be using. They also were shown other resources and facilities available to students. The day for students in Fitch Academy will begin at 8:30 a.m., which is later than a typical day at DHS, but still end at 2:15 so students who choose to participate in extracurriculars can get back to DHS in time for their activity of choice.

“I really can’t imagine that we could have these students in a better place,” said Dunn. The small number of participants is by design, as the original idea was the keep the number low this year, and potentially grow it in future years should the program be successful. The early discussions of Fitch Academy stated that the first year would cap at 12 students, and the size would never grow beyond 25 students. Dunn and members of the administration have stated they expect numbers to grow after this first year.

Lynda Sorensen, an English teacher at DHS, will be the lead teacher for Fitch Academy. Dunn pointed out that Sorensen will hopefully continue to teach a class at DHS as well, saying, “that’s an important connection for her.” That class at DHS will be in the second semester.

A program like Fitch Academy has been something that Sorensen has been interested in for years. “Over the years, I have had a number of students who have been unable to maintain their education at the high school and have received individual tutoring or have been placed in other educational settings.  I always felt badly that those students were not able to stay in the district where we could support them with the Darien teachers who know them best,” Sorensen, highlighting just how important it is to keep Darien students in the district.

With that in mind, Sorensen became part of the committee of teachers and administrators who looked at the best way to provide quality education and setting to those who needed something different.

“Those beliefs made my work on the committee interesting and challenging.  As time went on and our plans began to take shape, I became more interested in teaching in the program.  Keeping our students "close to home" with a staff that can make learning pleasurable and engaging is a challenge that has energized me as a teacher,” Sorensen said.

For the first year, Sorensen simply hopes to create an environment that is comfortable and inspiring, and that students and teachers will look forward to returning to everyday.

“I am most looking forward to working with the students and exploring ways to invite them to be curious and creative and adventuresome in their learning. Most of all, however, I look forward to getting to know the students who will be coming to Fitch. At the heart of teaching is the cultivation of relationships with our students; when we know the students who enter our classrooms, there is so much we can do together,” Sorensen.

Sorensen added that there is a hope to add a health and wellness component to the program at Fitch. “We’d like to have that health and wellness component because it’s not just these kids, but kids at DHS experience a lot of stress over many things. This is a way we can think about how we can be aware of our coping mechanism,” said Sorensen. There is also a hope that field trips and other enrichment activities will be possible for Fitch students.

Sorensen also pointed out that the students who have committed to program are not struggling academically. “These are very, very academically capable kids. They have a disposition towards learning and achievement, and sometimes things just get in the way. They prefer a different environment and thank goodness we can offer that them,” said Sorensen.

Additional teachers will be added for social studies, math, science, and foreign language coursework. All subject areas have a teacher at this point with one exception, and the names of other teachers are not released until the entire staff is filled and shared with the families of students attending Fitch Academy.  

Dunn, who will serve as the administrator assigned to the program, and members of the board were extremely enthused at the possibilities offered by Fitch Academy. “This is so wonderful for our students and our community. It’s been needed for a period of time,” said Dunn.

darestia@darientimes.com