Top ten stories of 2017: #4 — Fitch Academy, an alternative program at Darien High, off to strong start
The past year in Darien schools has been a very strong one. Standardized testing scores are up, students are taking more APs, and the student body distinguished itself as testing a level significantly higher than the state average. However the story in the schools that generated more buzz than any other was the pilot alternative education program, Fitch Academy.
Fitch Academy is housed at the Darien Library, and currently has 12 students ranging from freshman to senior. That number is expected to grow to a cap of 25 students next year, as there are even now students on the waitlist. The program is designed for students who are struggling with regularly attending class at DHS, whether it be because of the environment in the building or other extenuating circumstance. The students are not particularly medically fragile, and Fitch is not necessarily a special education program. The goal is to provide an environment that allows this particular population of the student body a place to thrive. So far, Fitch appears to have done exactly that. Eileen Whalen, a school psychologist, told the Board of Education in October, “Our targeted population was accurate. It’s very clear we have met a need in this community. We have very capable, intelligent students, not behavior problems.” There were some in Darien who questioned if the program was truly needed, and that these students needed to simply “toughen up,” but that notion was quickly addressed and discounted by Superintendent Dr. Dan Brenner, and was also the subject of a column in the Darien Times.
The Board of Education has gotten several updates from Brenner and Linda Sorensen, the leader teacher for Fitch Academy. Parents of students in the program have raved about the academic success their children are experiencing. Sorensen said a parent told her, “I have my child back,” and another said, “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.” Joining Sorensen this year were the department chairpeople in the district, who would teach a class in their academic subject area and then return to Middlesex and DHS. Future plans would likely not include the chairpeople teaching at Fitch Academy, as part of the growth for the next year was to add dual certified staff to make the scheduling more flexible.
Brenner has also spoken how Fitch Academy impacts the budget. Some students in the program would have been outplaced, and just this year Brenner estimates a savings of around $175,000 in tuition, transportation, and homebound tutoring. That number could double next year as the program grows to its final capacity of 25 students. The cost to use the space at the library is $24,000 although the administration is now wrestling with the task of finding a new home for the future.
In early December the Board of Education unanimously voted to take the pilot status off of Fitch Academy and make it a regular program in Darien. While it could be possible that the program becomes available to students outside of Darien in the future, making it a revenue stream, it was decided that the program is not yet ready to make that leap. This year the program will grow to its intended size of 25 students and get settled in a new location. After dealing with any remaining growing pains, the board could revisit the revenue stream conversation.