NAUGATUCK — Two borough principals are pushing for the creation of an alternative seventh to 12th grade school in Naugatuck.
Naugatuck High School Principal Jan Saam and Middle School Principal Christine Blanchard met with the Board of Education’s Curriculum Subcommittee last month to present a written proposal for a separate school to help students struggling under the regular school system.
“I’ve seen the need for an alternative school for years,” Saam said last week.
Such a school would feature smaller student-to-teacher ratios and a personalized educational experience, Saam said. Students would have an opportunity to see the application of what they learn in the classroom in the real world, she said.
In an alternative school, students wouldn’t be constrained by a bell marking the end of one class and the beginning of the next. Teachers would have more freedom to think outside the box.
Students accepted into the program would be recommended by staff, but would have to apply and make a commitment to the school to be admitted, Saam said.
“I don’t want this to become a dumping ground. I want this to be a true alternative for students,” Saam said.
Saam said she envisioned a school of 50 to 60 students total from grades seven to 12.
Saam said students would be recommended for the alternative school for a variety of reasons, including poor attendance, poor grades, and behavioral issues. The school would be reserved as a last resort for students who didn’t respond to earlier attempts at intervention.
Saam said she wasn’t sure if students would want to go to an alternative school.
“Would kids want to go? I don’t know. … Some kids might realize they need to do something … I don’t want it to become a stigma,” Saam said.
Others might have parents that push them into it, she added.
Whether students want to attend the school, Saam was confident that once they participate in a program where they realize they can be successful, students would begin to build self esteem and grow to appreciate the program.
“I can’t imagine it feels good to come to school every day and be unsuccessful or get into trouble,” Saam said.
Saam said the staff for such a school would have to be carefully selected and trained to deal with the varying issues students may have. She said teachers would have to do a good job in selling and engaging students so they buy-in.
“Oftentimes these students are disengaged, disenfranchised … I want them to know that there is an adult to care about them,” Saam said.
Saam said she would like to see a full-time councilor or social worker on staff to meet with students as individuals and in groups. The councilor could run groups with topics like goal setting, anger management, and making good choices.
Saam said she would also like to see community service built into the program, and be a big part of what the students do. Currently high school students can earn up to two credits for community service and at least one credit will become required in next few years.
“I think it’s important for students to learn to give back and think of the world beyond themselves,” Saam said.
Saam envisions students graduating from the alternative school will get the same Naugatuck diploma as traditional students. They would also have to meet the same academic requirements.
However, Saam said students wouldn’t necessarily attend the alternative school through graduation.
“The goal would be to get your academic skills, meet your emotional and social needs so you could come back to your traditional school … and be successful,” Saam said.
Saam said she hoped an alternative school would decrease the dropout rate and improve students test scores because students would become reengaged in their education.
A big hurdle for a possible alternative school is location.
About six years ago, then high school Principal Lori Ferreira tried to start an alternative program within the confines of the existing high school building.
“It didn’t work out as well as we hoped it would,” said Board of Education Chair David Heller, who was on the board at the time.
Saam, who was associate principal at the time, said the program failed and was discontinued after one semester because it was in the same building and the district only hired one teacher for about a dozen students without auxiliary support staff.
“We couldn’t let a whole year go by with students in a program that wasn’t working. … It was a really great attempt to try to make something happen for students on a shoestring budget, but if you want to do an alternative school the right way, you need more resources,” Saam said.
She said it is important for an alternative school to have its own building, away from temptations that may have led to problems in the first place. She said it’s hard to run a different program inside a traditional school.
She had originally suggested using the top floor of Prospect Street School, before she was informed that there are already offices there.
“I don’t know if there’s any free space out there. … If Western School ever came off line, that would be ideal,” Saam said.
Long Term School Facility Planning Committee Chair Warren “Pete” Hess said his committee, which is looking at the configuration of borough schools 10 to 15 years from now, has discussed the possibility of locating an alternative school at Western.
“It is being seriously considered to be part of the final plan that will be proposed by the long term facility committee,” Hess said.
Hess said the committee’s plan would take place over a period of years in phases, but there is not set time-table yet.
Saam said she doesn’t want to wait five years until that might happen.
“I think the need is now,” Saam said. “I think the sooner it starts, the more students we can help.”
The Curriculum Subcommittee plans to tour several alternative schools in the area to get a better idea of how they work and how they got off the ground.
Subcommittee Chair Dorothy Neth-Kunin said she was interested in the idea, but needs to do more research on logistics and costs.
“I do believe that an alternative school could be a viable opportunity in our community,” Neth-Kunin said. “We really have to explore what all the opportunities are and what all the pieces are in order to put it together.”
Neth-Kunin said the idea of an alternative school has been a topic of conversation within the community for many years and is something the board feels strongly about.
After the tours, if the subcommittee is interested, Saam said the next step would be to look into the costs of the program.
“The only thing I have not done is cost it out,” Saam said. “I think if there was any hesitation at all, it would be based on costs.”
Saam gave the subcommittee a preliminary estimate of $1 million to $2 million to secure a site and hire staff, including an administrator to run the school.
“While I’m putting the idea out there and will do whatever it takes to bring it to fruition, I don’t see myself running the program,” Saam said.
Heller said he was interested in the idea of an alternative school, although he hasn’t seen Saam’s presentation.
“I’m certainly all in favor of an alternative school if we can find an acceptable location and funding for the program,” Heller said.
The key, of course, is funding. Heller said he would also like to start a talented and gifted program, increase choices for electives, and hire more social workers.
“The only problem is there is only a certain number of educational dollars available to us each year,” Heller said.
Heller said the board would have to look at its priorities and the realities of what an alternative school would cost before making a decision.
Mayor Robert Mezzo, who also serves on the Board of Education, said Saam makes a very compelling case for an alternative school.
“I think there are certain students that really struggle within a conventional school environment,” Mezzo said.
However, he agreed with Heller that the proposition requires analysis of funding, location, and how such a school would operate.
“The reality is society is impacted when students leave our educational system without degrees and without the skills necessary to succeed in life,” Mezzo said.
Blanchard could not be reached for comment.