Officials from New Canaan Public Schools on Thursday discussed publicly for the first time a proposal that would see the long-vacant Outback building behind Town Hall used to house a new alternative special education program.
During a meeting of the Town Building Evaluation and Use Committee, held at Town Hall, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi revealed that the school administration has for the past year been developing a new alternative special education program designed to bring out-placed students back in-district.
The goal in developing the program, he said, is to improve special education in New Canaan and to realize potential operational savings. He told the committee—which is charged with reviewing the uses, physical condition and capital needs of more than 40 town-owned structures (not including school buildings)—that the former teen center would be an ideal location for such a program because it is the right size and centrally located in town.
“[There] is the possibility of that building being used for students in the future—as a way to house a small alternative program that we are discussing at the Board of Ed, internally,” Luizzi told the committee members.
Luizzi said Darlene Pianka, assistant superintendent of pupil and family services, and members of the special education staff have been working on the development of the program for about the past year. This has included visiting other, similar programs in Ridgefield, Danbury and other towns.
“As we look around at our students and student needs, it becomes more and more apparent that there is a need to provide support for students who, in an alternative setting to our high school, and even maybe middle school—where it is a smaller environment, more support for them—where they could have the emotional and social support they need to keep them in [the district],” Luizzi said. “And having been in the Outback a number of times, to speak to different groups, it seems like an ideal space for something like that.”
Such a program would start small—probably with around 12 students—but would grow to between 16 to 20 students within a couple of years, he said.
“While not common, they’re certainly not rare in school districts,” Luizzi said of such alternative programs. “You’ll find that, Ridgefield has one, as does Danbury, which has up to 150 students in its ACES program.”
In fact, New Canaan already has an alternative special education program for 18 to 21 year olds that is housed in leased space on Forest Street.
“We have a model that we have used successfully for about seven years now which parallels [the proposed new program] in some ways —and that is our Launch program, which is the 18 to 21 program,” Luizzi said. “That program has worked very well, particularly in terms of cost avoidance, because it has enabled the town to serve those students in-district.”
Luizzi said the Launch Program currently serves four to six students.
“While its is a different population, I think the model of the Launch program shows the benefit of servicing students in-district,” he said, adding that the usage patterns of the two facilities would be different.
When the topic of parking for the Outback was broached by one of the committee members, Luizzi acknowledged that “it is tight, and we will have to figure out what to do about that.”
He said although parking was a concern, the operation of the alternative program would not require a lot of staff parking. He said it would be limited to two teachers and several support staff.
“In addition there would be some back and forth of staff—specialists and counselors—from the high school,” he said.
Luizzi emphasized that the plan to develop a new alternative special education program had not yet been formally presented to the Board of Education or school parents.
Penny Young, a co-chair of the committee, asked Luizzi what reaction he anticipated from school parents.
“It takes a little while to get things going, to build the reputation and the relationships, around a program like this,” he said. “But we already have such a strong positive relationship, and we’ve shown that when we put together programs like this, we do it great. The Launch program and the pre-school programs are great examples.”
Though a meeting of the committee might seems like an odd place for Luizzi to first introduce news about a new alternative program, he said the fact that the the seven-member committee is exploring possible uses for the former Outback building is what prompted the administration to explore the possibility of launching an alternative special ed program in the first place.
He said the major benefit of the program, should it get all the necessary approvals, is the ability to keep more special education students in this school district, thus reducing the need for outplacements, which can cost as much as $60,000 per year per student. He said the Outback building could provide the ideal setting for students who need mental health support.
“And it’s wonderful location, in that it is centralized,” he said, adding that students in the program would get involved in various jobs and activities in downtown.
“On the financial what it does for us, is help us to bring some students back into district who are currently out-placed, in a variety of spots,” he said. “And it helps us avoid those outplacements in the future, by giving us a continual program.”
Some of the students who are outplaced currently must be bused as far as Greenwich, Luizzi said. He added that having the alternative program at the Outback facility would greatly reduce district transportation costs.
Luizzi said “physically the layout of the building could work.”
“The idea with a program like this would be for it to take on it’s own identity,” he said. “It would be more like a community.”
As such, having a floor plan that is more “open” is ideal. He said the second floor of the facility, “with the kitchen and the open space,” could be “sort of a general meeting area for kids.”
“Having the kitchen there is ideal, because you also have responsibility for kids in those kinds of programs to do some cooking and cleaning,” he said. “And then downstairs, the way the it is, would require some reconfiguration, but you would have your classroom and academic type spaces in there.”
Young pointed out that the building already has two ADA-compliant bathrooms. She said renovations for the building “could be as simple as building two classrooms.”
Of course, there remains a question as to whether bringing special education services in-district, as opposed to outsourcing them, would reduce overall costs.
“As with all things like this, there is a cost up front, because you would be meeting the needs of the kids,” Luizzi said.
And that means additional staffing—a topic that will no doubt be explored in detail when the administration formally presents its plan to the school board.
Provided that the Board of Ed and the school administration feel the alternative program “would be worth pursuing,” and that the town approves the use for the building, “then we would be developing it and putting it into our budget for next year,” he said.
Municipal officials been asking since July 2016, when ownership of the Outback reverted to the town after it couldn’t self-sustain as a teen center, just what to do with the building.
All told, committee members have said, some 20 percent of the space in town-owned buildings in New Canaan is unoccupied, while another 25 percent requires major repairs. Those figures have prompted members of the committee to speculate on the prudence of renting offices for the school district administration itself. In an Executive Summary to its budget for the current fiscal year, the district includes a line item of $337,890 for its “Central Office & Launch” program, which both operate out of a building at Locust Avenue and Forest Street downtown (see page 5).
The seven-member committee is expected this month to deliver a report detailing the physical condition, capital needs and uses of town-owned buildings in New Canaan, with recommendations on what to do with them. At a recent meeting, committee members said they would use the term ‘options’ instead of ‘recommendations.’