Alternative approach to high school going strong

NAUGATUCK — Three years after Naugatuck High School’s Genesis Academy opened, officials say the program continues to help students stay on track, reach their academic potential, and form relationships with their peers and teachers.

Genesis Academy, which is located across the street from the high school at the former Naugatuck Visiting Nurses Association building at 600 Rubber Ave., opened in 2015 to provide an alternative education program for students who struggle in a traditional classroom setting.

“The large high school, with the way we do things here, works for most students, but there are students for whom it just doesn’t work.” Naugatuck High Principal Janice Saam said. “We needed to provide a different way in order for students to be successful in high school because it’s not really ‘one size fits all.’”

The program provides more freedom for educators and students to create unconventional projects and set curricular goals based on the interests and needs of students.

“We’re doing a podcast on raising awareness for heroin, and opioid use overall. How it affects communities, how it’s affected the country, and how it’s affected Connecticut itself, and even Naugatuck,” said Ray Robertson, a student at the academy.

Every aspect about the podcast — the soundtrack, the production and the content — is initiated and generated by students.

English teacher Anthony Sorge, who teaches at the academy and the high school, said the podcast isn’t necessarily something that could have been done in a traditional English class.

“I think that opportunity to be aware of what the kids are into, what they are passionate about, do unconventional things to meet those interests, and get them to practice and build some real skills is something different about the way we do things over there (Genesis Academy),” Sorge said.

There are many factors considered in assessing whether a student is eligible for the alternative program, including past academic record and behavior.

Sometimes, Saam said, it’s students who are going through a tough time in their lives.

“It’s students that have potential but that cannot demonstrate it in a larger classroom environment,” math teacher Andrea Fitzgerald said. “They need non-traditional schooling.”

While the academy originally opened for freshmen and sophomores, the program has expanded to include upperclassmen. There are about 13 students currently enrolled in the program. Some spend part of the day in the program and the rest of the day in traditional classes.

The program offers a similar curriculum to the traditional high school. The smaller class size and lower student-to-teacher ratio are intended to increase interpersonal communication, improve relationships between teachers and students and students and their peers, and allow for educators to more appropriately and directly address the issues that students may have difficulty with.

While one educator instructs, there is at least one other educator circulating the classroom, monitoring behavior and offering personal and academic support.

“It’s harder to get in trouble when you’ve got two or three teachers looking at you in a room all day long. It’s also harder to slip under the radar,” Sorge said.

Sorge described the academy as a “family environment.”

“At the end of the day, I think everyone knows that the teachers there have a sense of unconditional support and positive regard for those kids,” Sorge said.

Sorge has noticed that some students have become more social, outgoing and confident, and are handling their emotions better.

Robertson said the program has had a positive impact on him.

“They thought that I couldn’t be in a normal school environment. So they put me in Genesis, and since I’ve been here, my grades have been up,” he said. “Basically, everyone in this room, I consider them a friend. Genesis is a good thing.”

Saam felt the program is accomplishing its mission, as “more students have been more successful than they would have been [at the high school].”

There are no plans to expand the program at the moment due to budget constraints and building capacity, but Saam said officials have to continue to remain very flexible and responsive to students’ needs.

Sorge agreed.

“As we continue thinking about meeting students’ needs, I think that we’re going to see more and more students who would be good candidates for this program, who would benefit from a smaller class size, from one-on-one attention from teachers, from more unconventional styles of learning, and from more positive relationships with both teachers and students,” Sorge said.