Staples Principal unveils plan for alternative high school
WESTPORT — Like other local districts before it, Westport will roll out a plan for an alternative high school for “disengaged students” to be opened during the 2018-19 school year.
“It’s really a way for us to take our curriculum and make it work for students that really could use a different approach to their education at Staples for a variety of reasons,” said Staples High School Principal James D’Amico at the Board of Education’s meeting on Monday.
According to D’Amico, the school will offer a “flexible, multidisciplinary academic schedule with dedicated social-emotional supports.”
It will be called Staples Pathways Academy and located in the former district Pupil Services Office at Staples. Students will be chosen based on staff referrals, though they can also apply for entry.
At the beginning of the 2017-18 school year, Darien Public Schools opened an alternative high school in the town’s library. Fairfield has long operated its Walter Fitzgerald Campus in an office building. New Canaan Public Schools have also recently weighed the opening of an alternative school in the town’s former teen center.
For those enrolled in Staples Pathways, periods one through four would be eliminated and replaced with an integrated, interdisciplinary core instructional block, during which students will get loose instruction on English, math, social studies and science. The second half of the day would be an independent learning, exploration block. D’Amico said students might take advantage of work study for credit, or dual enrollment opportunities at local community colleges. The new school would mostly utilize existing employees, D’Amico said.
“This could not be more exciting, strategic for the district, consistent with Dr. Palmer’s vision and all we’ve been talking about,” Board of Education Chairman Michael Gordon said.
However, some on the board were skeptical. Mark Mathias and Karen Kleine wondered how the Pathways program would address an issue like chronic absenteeism. Kleine also wondered how many students were failing out of Staples and what students’ needs are.
“Are we sure that we know what the students need before we’re creating something we think they need?” Kleine asked.
But administrators said the school was not designed specifically to deal with failure or to combat slumping grades.
“It’s important to consider that students who are chronically absent may not be failing their classes, and students who are failing their classes aren’t always chronically absent,” said Staples Assistant Principal Megan Ward.
Ward said referrals to the school’s Response to Intervention team have jumped over the past three years from 26 to 54, to 74 so far this year.
In its first year, the program would focus only on incoming seniors, though it would later be open to juniors as well. D’Amico said 28 students had already been identified that fit into one of three groups: students over-age and under-credit, students with chronic absenteeism and students who have been referred by teachers for RTI.
Board of Education members also wondered if separating certain students from the larger population might cause disengagement to a greater extent.
“Even if it’s on campus. Even if it’s in the same building, that separation can feel like miles from the culture of your school, from your ability to interact with colleagues if you’re a teacher, friends if you’re a student,” D’Amico said. “We want to make sure that while we’re offering a different pathway that this program is fully embedded in not only the Staples community, but the Westport community.”
He said the small class size and personalized learning approach could provide stability to students who may feel alienated from the larger community.
“I think this is great progress, but I think we’re still missing some pieces, I feel,” board member Vik Muktavaram said.
“I view this as a starting point for Staples,” D’Amico said.
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