District Pursues ‘Alternative High School’ Program, Outback or No Outback

Though it appears the former Outback Teen Center is off the table for now as a future location for an alternative high school program, creating that program remains a priority for the district, officials said last week.

New Canaan Public Schools administrators are actively looking at other locations for the program—designed to serve students facing specific health challenges such as anxiety, depression, mood and eating disorders—and a request to fund the equivalent of four positions to operate it remains in the Board of Education’s proposed spending plan for next year, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi said.

Though the district “would love to have the [Outback] building to establish the program, one is not dependent upon the other, so the alternative high school positions do remain in the budget at this point,” Luizzi said at the Board of Ed’s Feb. 5 meeting, held in the Wagner Room at New Canaan High School.

“If it is not located at the Outback, we are looking at other possibilities, so just really exploring and we are looking at a couple of other places in town and other possibilities. Since the program itself is looking to develop its own identity, it is important that it is off site, that it’s not in a classroom or what have you. So we are looking around to see what’s possible.”

A building at the New Canaan Nature Center may be a contender, Luizzi said later, in response to a question from Board of Ed member Maria Naughton about possible locations.

Luizzi’s comments come as the Board of Ed’s $90.7 million budget request moves from the Board of Selectmen (see page 97) to New Canaan’s funding bodies. The program would require one social worker, special ed teacher, general ed teacher and teaching assistant, he said.

As envisioned, the alternative high school program would supplant an afternoon instructional program now operated at NCHS—and so offer immediate cost-savings of about $63,000—and, it’s safe to say for budgeting purposes, would draw back to New Canaan one student currently educated out-of-district, Luizzi said. Depending on their level of placement and therapeutic needs, per-student out-of-district costs can come to $60,000 to more than $100,000 per year, officials said, and that figure covers tuition savings alone (not transportation costs that also would be saved).

Originally thought to be a good fit to house the alternative high school program, the Outback ultimately may be leased or sold, town officials have said.

According to Luizzi, the alternative high school program would serve six to 10 students in its first year, with an eye on increasing enrollment up to about 18 or 20 over time as it gains a favorable reputation.

“As the program becomes established, we do anticipate additional savings from students both coming back to be educated in New Canaan and others that may have thought about being educated elsewhere, but are educated here, we believe that will happen because we believe as we put this together that we will be able to provide a superior educational opportunity for these kids,” he said.

In his comments, Luizzi addressed what he described as common questions regarding the planned alternative high school program, such as whether students involved in it would be able to participate in extracurricular activities at NCHS (yes), whether it’s a special education program (no, it’s a general ed program).

“We do believe this is the right program for us,” Luizzi said. “In past years regionally, statewide, nationally there has been an increase in the number of students struggling to succeed in a typical high school program due to anxiety, avoidance, other issues that get in their way of accessing their education. As educators, we believe that we can develop a program here that can successfully meet those needs, that can be better than anything to be found elsewhere and do it in an effective, sustainable and cost–effective way. We know that we know how to do this, because we do have experience.”

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