The creation of an alternative high school in Wilton was discussed at the Board of Education’s Feb. 1 meeting as part of its review of Superintendent Kevin Smith’s $82,168,952 proposed school budget.

Smith mentioned the idea of an alternative high school during his budget presentation to the board on Jan. 18, when he announced that the Teaching and Learning Committee, and then the entire Board of Education, would “hear a presentation about a revamped evening school — an alternative high school” in the near future.

Smith included the alternative high school in the first tier of his list of unmet needs in his proposed budget.

“We have a sector of kids whose needs we are not presently meeting as best we can, and so a group of staff have been engaged in putting together a proposal,” Smith said on Jan. 18.

“It’s our hope that we can come forward with a proposal to create an alternative high school that we can then open up to not only our students here, but students in our neighboring communities as well, and create that as another shared service and leverage the resources in other communities.”

During its Feb. 1 meeting, the education board reviewed questions pertaining to Smith’s budget, one of which asked for a “rationale” for and “description” of the alternative high school plan and where the district is in the planning process.

Since the “dissolution” of the district’s evening school program, Smith said, “we have been without an alternative for students who are unable to engage in the traditional classroom environment.”

“During that time, we have 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,” he said.

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

Smith said he and administrators believe the district can use its own resources to “provide an alternative program that will be superior to outside facilities” and are “designing an individualized program built on the social and emotional components of [the high school’s] advisory program, interdisciplinary learning and practical application of skills through internship or community service.”

“Our team researched alternative schools in other communities last year,” partnered with Big Picture Learning — an educational institution that specializes in small, student-centered learning communities — this past fall “to create a plan” for the program, and is preparing to present its proposal to the Board of Education’s Teaching and Learning Committee, said Smith.

After it’s presented to the committee, Smith said, the proposal will be presented to the entire Board of Education.

A response to another question about Smith’s proposed budget explains that the evening school will “become the alternative high school, a separate entity from the Wilton High School program.”

Smith and Wilton High School Principal Bob O’Donnell said an estimated 15 to 17 students now enrolled could benefit from the alternative high school.

“It could be a smaller number initially — I think we and the board need to recognize that,” said O’Donnell.

The hope is to provide a “quality program” that serves Wilton students, said O’Donnell, and possibly students from neighboring districts later on as well.

“We’ve been in touch with some neighboring districts about partnering with them,” said O’Donnell, adding that he has been in touch with the principal of Staples High School in Westport and Smith has been in touch with administrators in Easton and Redding.

O’Donnell said there are some students in Wilton High School right now “with whom we’re trying to avoid outplacements.”

For some students, O’Donnell said, a school with about 1,340 students and class sizes as large as 20 “is just not the optimal learning environment.”

Cost

According to Smith, an estimated $500,000 would be needed to start the alternative high school.

In response to Board of Education member Lory Rothstein’s question about how much money the district could save on outplacement costs by opening an alternative high school, Smith said the district covers the cost of tuition for outplaced students, which can be “extraordinary — $60,000 or more.”

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

Rothstein said the alternative high school is something the board could “probably make a case for.”

“It seems to me that if we do some of the research and the math to see what it’s costing us today not to have this high school that it might just pay for itself,” she said.

The Board of Education will meet with the Board of Finance to review the school budget Tuesday, Feb. 13, at 7:30 p.m., in the Wilton High School Professional Library.

The education board is slated to adopt the superintendent’s proposed budget on Thursday, Feb. 22.