Changes on the horizon for alternative education program

Renovations are underway at the annex building at Region 16’s district office in Prospect to make it the site for Woodland Regional High School’s alternative education program next school year. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

PROSPECT — Woodland Regional High School’s alternative education program will have a new home and expanded hours next school year.

The Helping All Woodland Kids Succeed (HAWKS) alternative program started in January 2013 as an after-school program for students who struggle in a traditional high school setting, students who need to recover credits, or students who can’t attend the high school for disciplinary reasons. The program ran four days a week for three hours after school at Woodland, mixing online learning with instruction from teachers.

When the 2018-19 school year begins, the alternative program’s new home will be a classroom in the annex at the district office on Coer Road. The annex used to be the kindergarten wing of the former Algonquin School. The main school building was torn down after Prospect Elementary School opened and the district office was built in its place.

The annex is used as the maintenance office and for storage, uses that will continue, and renovations are underway to make the building suitable for the alternative program.

Director of Finance and Business Operations Pamela Mangini said the renovations are expected to cost about $75,000. The work includes about $50,000 to renovate the bathrooms to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and about $10,000 for new furniture and technology. She said the money will come from savings in the substitute account in the 2017-18 school budget.

The renovations, aside from the work on the bathrooms, is being done in house.

The hours for the program will be expanded to 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday with the possibility of some hours on Fridays — the details are still being finalized.

The main catalyst for the changes is new state requirements, which focused on expelled students, mandating students in alternative education programs receive comparable amount of instructional hours to students in traditional school settings.

Region 16 Superintendent of Schools Michael Yamin said the program couldn’t meet the required hours under the old format.

The district could have sent students to alternative programs in other districts or run an alternative program during the school day at Woodland. Both options are cost-prohibitive, officials said.

Aside from renovating the building, the new format requires hiring a special education teacher, who will split between Long River Middle School and the program. The special education teacher will be hired in the place of new science teacher budgeted for 2018-19.

Yamin said the district is making an initial investment by renovating the building, but it would cost more in the long run to place students out of district or run a program during the school day at Woodland. He added the annex will also be used for students who need homebound tutors.

“[The annex] becomes a nice valuable resource,” he said. “We’ve always had it and now we’ve renovated it so it becomes a useable asset as well.”

Region 16 Board of Education Chair Robert Hiscox said it was important to the board to keep the students in the district. It allows the students to stay connected to the region, which is comprised of Beacon Falls and Prospect, and gives officials greater control over the program.

“It gives us a better handle on providing the best services for them,” Hiscox said.

The way the program is run will also change.

Students will have two options, explained Paul Geary, an English teacher at Woodland and the administrator of the alternative program. Students can either attend Woodland for the last two blocks of the day to take electives then continue in the alternative school from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. or attend the program the entire time.

Students who attend the program full time, those who likely can’t attend Woodland for emotional or disciplinary reasons, will be with the special education teacher and an instructional aide from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and work on electives online. From 2:30 to 5:30 p.m., all the students in the program will be taught a core subject — math, science, English and history — on a rotating basis. Teachers from the district will teach the courses.

Geary said the new format brings some students back into the Woodland fold a little more and provides a more structured environment overall. Previously, he said, students worked more at their own pace.

“We think it might be more successful to have a more structured schedule every day,” Geary said.

Not that the program hasn’t had its share of success. Eleven students were in the program this past school year. Five of them graduated last month, Geary said. Two of the students graduated on time while the others were a semester behind, he said.

As of late last month, Geary projected between five to 10 students will be in the program next year. The program is fluid, though, as students come in or return to Woodland during the year, or leave to follow a different route to a diploma.

“We want kids to be able to go to the alternative school, then hopefully transition back to Woodland sometime within their high school career,” he said. “We don’t look at this as their four-year school.”

The state requirements forced the hands of officials when it came to making the changes, but Geary views it as a chance to continue to improve the program.

“I think it really is going to be an opportunity for us and for the kids to really do something to make this another great school in Region 16, and our goal is to make this a model alternative school,” he said.