Board reviews alternative school program proposal

A new alternative program for students in Wilton is in the works.
The Board of Education discussed a proposal to start an alternative school program at its meeting on Jan. 31. Assistant Superintendent for Special Services Andrea Leonardi said the proposal has been a collaborative effort by staff, parents, students and more. Leonardi said she spent the last year listening to staff and different community groups.
“One of the things that began to emerge in my thinking is where there are some areas within what I call our continuum of service that needs to be shored up,” Leonardi said. “This is one of them.”
The program looks to develop rigorous academic learning as well as the development of skills in a social and emotional capacity, Leonardi said. Data over the years from school climate surveys for middle and high school has outlined heightened levels of anxiety or depression.
“We’ve seen the ramifications of that at the individual level where students and families are struggling with a number of what I would call maladaptive coping mechanisms,” Leonardi said.
This can look like school avoidance, class avoidance, limited ability to maintain emotional control or self-regulation, she said. It can also reach the level of suicidal idealation, suicidal attempts or cutting and substance abuse.
“We’re seeing increasing numbers of those students in our middle and high school kids,” Leonardi said.
The alternative program would be for students in seventh through 12th grade and located at Trackside Teen Center. Leonardi said for year one they expect around 25 students. This would include three to five middle school students and up to 20 high school students. A one-bus model has been proposed to transport students.
Leonardi said the curriculum would be based in all of the core standards of Wilton public schools’ curriculum.
“Our proposal is to use those standards to drive project-based learning,” she added.
Projects developed by a core team would have standards attached to them. Students would then need to show evidence of learning and mastering these standards, Leonardi said. While the purpose of the program is to address students’ needs there is also a financial benefit.
“Increasing our capacity within district to provide services to kids does have the potential for cost avoidance of future outplacements, future high-cost private school placements, and the transportation costs that are often associated with transporting kids out of town,” Leonardi said.
Wilton High School special education teacher Eileen Wheeler said her dream for this program is that it eventually becomes available for all seventh to 12th grade students in town.
“I feel it would be a dignified space for these students to come in everyday and be excited about learning in a nontraditional way,” Wheeler said.
Superintendent Kevin Smith said there is an element of starting something new and adjustments will be made. Despite this, he said he was confident in the team working to put the program together.
“The depth of thinking is as good as I’ve ever seen on anything,” he said. “Probably only matched by the depth of commitment and recognition of the need that exists today.”
The board plans to vote on the proposal at its meeting on Thursday, Feb. 21.