Fitch Academy teachers offer update to Board of Education

Fitch Academy, the alternate education program at Darien High School, is now almost six weeks into its pilot year. As it is really the first program of its kind, the administration and Board of Education are watching closely as a small group of students take part in a different style of learning experience.

Lynda Sorensen is the lead teacher at Fitch Academy, and she along with school psychologist Eileen Whalen gave the presentation to the board, offering what amounted to a very positive report. Fitch Academy is based at the Darien Library, and as of October 11, will be at its pilot capacity of 12 students. Those students are five seniors, two years, and four freshman, with the last coming from a group of two or three students interested in the final spot.

According to Sorensen the location has been great, saying, “Library staff has been wonderful, truly so supportive. They offered their to us space in numerous ways.” Superintendent Dr. Dan Brenner added that, “simply put, this would not be possible without the library.”

Sorensen and Whalen offered up a typically Monday schedule for students. History is taught from 8:30 - 9:45 by Keith Keeler. Then a small break follows until 10 am. From 10 to 10:45 students are engaged within the community, and at 10:45 until noon, science is taught by Christian Dockum. From noon until 12:45 students eat lunch, followed by Spanish instruction until 1:30 from Christina Mauricio. After Spanish until the end of the day, students can work on an independent study, look at current events, or pursue electives like the arts. Students also use the nearby town hall fields for exercise and activity. This schedule is typically from Monday through Thursday, with a different approach Friday.

Friday, students have tutorial with individual teachers from 8:30 until 10. Afterwards, the rest of the day is consumed by guest speaker, wellness enrichment activities, or field trips. Students have visited Chelsea Piers, the Google Headquarters and the High Line, and the Darien Police Station already this year.

A topic of discussion around the program has been that those teaching at Fitch are also the same teachers who became the department chairpeople this year. Brenner confirmed that for Keeler, Mauricio, Bellows, Dockum, and O’Reilly this is the case. Brenner offered clarity on the subject as he acknowledged that people were not told that this could be the case.

“We needed experts who could teach a wide range,” Brenner said, adding, “I need someone who can teach calculus and also algebra. Respectfully, not every teacher can do that.”

Similarly, a social studies teacher at Fitch would need to be comfortable teaching to the 9th grade coursework and the 12th grade coursework.

There was a question from the board about how this might affect the goal of the work the chairpeople are tasked with. The chairpeople were to teach a single class, then spend the rest of their time at Darien High School or Middlesex observing teachers and evaluating curriculum for a more streamlined experience. Brenner was adamant that this goal is still being ment.

“For the first month, from the first day through September: I can say with confidence that every department chair has visited at least 100 classes in both the middle school and DHS,” Brenner said. Brenner added that having these chairpeople in classrooms every moment is the, “way you move things forward.”

“You change the model that it’s no longer a surprise that one of the supervisors is in the room. These are not planned, these are stopping in. they're not there to catch anyone,” Brenner said.

“The primary mission is to be in classrooms. That’s the goal. I can say with 100% confidence we are achieving that goal,” Brenner closed.

The presentation painted a picture of a successful program to date.

“Eleven kids are coming to school regular and feel safe and happy to be there,” said Whalen.

“Our targeted population was accurate. Its very clear we have met a need in this community. We have very capable, intelligent student, not behavior problems,” Whalen said, saying that most just had issues with attendance due to illness or other issues. Whalen added that some students are still having small problems, but overall their stress level is reduced dramatically, and that’s the goal of the program.

“There are students who hadn't been coming to school in a very long period of time and are now coming regularly,” Whalen said.

Brenner spoke to the impact on the current budget being made by Fitch Academy. The cost of the space in the library is $24,000 for the year.

The most impactful number, however, is the savings.

“I can say with 100% confidence. At this point we have saved between $150,000 and $175,000 on outplacement costs. Students would have been outplaced without this program. That’s probably conservative,” Brenner said. The dollar amount for transportation to outplacements is not part of that savings estimate, as it’s impossible to tell just where each student would have been placed so the transportation cost couldn’t be determined. Brenner added that about 100 hours of homebound tutoring have also been saved as a result of Fitch Academy. In addition to the savings, a program like Fitch Academy could become something that draws students from nearby towns, which would be a revenue stream. Brenner said that some superintendents have begun to have discussions around shared services as a way to deal with the financial struggles that are going on, but it was still early to seriously talk about the idea with Fitch still in a pilot year. 

As for challenges to the program, space seems to be near the top of the list. After this year, the library will no longer be an option as the program is expected to grow to a capacity of 25, which will be the permanent ceiling. A number of students are waiting to be part of the program, and some have even been turned away. The administration needs to find a space that can allow that growth. A positive to that growth, Brenner said, is that it would allow for more staff and dual certified teachers, which could free up those department chairpeople to teach their one class in Middlesex or DHS and be in both buildings all day.

Sorenson and Whalen were asked to offer testimonials, and they modestly obliged.

“I have my child back,” said one parent, while another added, “My child has a community now; he feels valued and safe.”

““We are grateful for this very needed program. The benefit these children are receiving will be life altering as they navigate their high school journey,” said another parent.

Sorensen said as an English teacher, one testimonial that made her particularly happy was, “I am not sure why, but my child has read a book for the first time.”

The presentation was met with applause from the crowd when finished. Fitch Academy presentations will likely continue to be regular, as with any pilot, it’s important to have as much data and information as possible when it comes time to make budgetary decisions. The state of financial affairs in Hartford will make every decision on a budget in Darien a challenging one, as funding of all sorts is up in the air, and it’s even possible the town gets a bill from the state before all is said and done. The early educational impact of the Fitch program appears to be strong, and reaching a population of students that needed something different to successful.