Alternative high school vs. Community Steps

Special education teacher and Community Steps program director Melissa Barrett said there is a “big misconception” when it comes to Wilton High School’s Community Steps program and the to-be-proposed alternative high school.

“They couldn’t be more opposite,” said Barrett.

One difference is the age of students served. While Community Steps serves students between the ages of 18 and 21, the alternative high school would serve students only up to age 18.

The alternative high school would also serve students with “completely different needs,” said Barrett, who “would like the town to understand how different the profiles are of the students who would go to an alternative high school and those who are in Community Steps.”

Community Steps provides transition services for students 18 to 21 who have a complex learning profile and need help with things like independent living and vocational skills, while the alternative high school would be a project-based “alternative route to education” for students who have “a more social-emotional complex profile and need a therapeutic day,” she said.

As Superintendent Kevin Smith explained in February, the alternative high school would be for “students who are unable to engage in the traditional classroom environment.”

Many of the students who would attend the alternative high school “would most likely graduate and go on to college,” said Barrett, and are not “receiving services until they’re 21,” like those in the Community Steps program.

Barrett said the alternative high school would serve students “suffering from significant social-emotional issues like high anxiety, school phobia and depression.”

“It’s very important that people understand that alternative high school students would be learning the same curriculum [as students in Wilton High School], but through more individualized, project-based delivery,” she said.

Some Fairfield County school districts have established alternative high schools to provide this kind of learning environment to their students. For example, the Norwalk Public School District’s Pathways Academy provides individualized education, project-based learning and small group instruction, and the Danbury Public School District’s Alternative Center for Excellence (ACE) offers smaller class sizes, a one-on-one technology environment and experimental/project-based learning activities.

Barrett is a member of a committee, composed of staff and administrators, who are “exploring alternative routes to education that meet the needs of our students’ social-emotional health and address the curriculum standards, while being fiscally responsible.”

The committee has met with representatives from Big Picture Learning — a nonprofit that designs innovative learning environments and researches and replicates new models for learning — to talk about how the high school’s curriculum could align to project-based learning, said Barrett, and is working on a proposal that outlines “what a day at the alternative high school could look like, how the curriculum would be, and what the therapeutic components would be.”


For some students, Wilton High School Principal Robert O’Donnell said at the Board of Education’s Feb. 1 meeting , a school with about 1,340 students and class sizes as large as 20 “is just not the optimal learning environment.”

Smith added that the district has seen “an increasing number of students struggling to succeed — sometimes having difficulty even making it into the building, as a result of anxiety and stressors related to the size of the school, the pace of instruction and the pressures that accompany our rigorous expectations.”

“In many cases,” said Smith, “these students have been outplaced into small, individualized, therapeutic environments.”

According to the Wilton Public School District’s March 1 enrollment report, there were 30 students attending out-of-district private schools. The report, however, does not indicate the reasons for outplacement.

An estimated $500,000 would be needed to start the alternative high school, but if approved, the school would save the Wilton Public School District in outplacement costs.

In February, Smith said the district covers the cost of tuition for outplaced students, which can be “extraordinary.”

According to the proposed 2018-19 school budget, $4,637,700 has been spent on outplacements in 2017-18, breaking down as follows:

  • Transportation: $810,000.

  • Tuition for out-of-district public schools: $282,000.

  • Tuition for out-of-district private schools: $3,545,200.

  • Staff travel: $500.

As of Oct. 1, 2017, there were 28 outplaced students from the Wilton Public School District.

“The cost of outplacement tuition is dependent upon the school to which a student is placed,” Smith told The Bulletin in an April 16 email. “The range is wide.”

By “leveraging in-house resources,” Smith said in February, the per-pupil cost in an alternative high school would not be the same as for the district’s “regular school program,” but “probably in the neighborhood of $30,000 — still a substantial reduction to what we’d be paying by outplacing.”


Although the alternative high school committee does not yet know where the school would go, Barrett said, there’s been “a ton of research around how important the space is.”

“It should really be out of the high school,” she said. “We don’t want a school within a school, and finding that space is difficult.”

Often, the space available “fiscally” and “management-wise” is “not always the nicest space,” said Barrett.

“We would like it to be off campus,” said Barrett.