Schools Superintendent: District Needs Alternative Program ‘With an Identity’ to Keep Students in New Canaan


When Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi presented a subcommittee of New Canaan’s legislative body with details of a proposal to create an “alternative high school” program for students with specific health challenges in New Canaan last week, a significant portion of the discussion focused on whether the former Outback building behind Town Hall would be a suitable location for the program.

Other factors deemed equally—if not more—important were also addressed, including the short- and long-term effects of the program on the educational and emotional wellbeing of New Canaan’s students.

Luizzi and Assistant Superintendent of Pupil and Family Services Darlene Pianka outlined their vision for a program that would replace New Canaan High School’s current Afternoon Instruction Program, or ‘AIP,’ which is held in the school’s media center.

AIP is currently only available to four to 10 upperclassmen at a time, while Luizzi’s proposal will potentially provide flexible academic instruction for six to 12 students in grades 8-12 based on their educational and therapeutic needs.

Over the past year, Luizzi and Pianka have been visiting both public and private alternative programs for teens throughout Fairfield County—some of which have accepted New Canaan students into its programs— and they shared a few of their observations with the subcommittee.

What they initially found was that the availability of alternative programs for students unable to successfully complete their courses in a traditional setting is limited.

“In conversation with some of my colleagues at these programs, they’ve given me feedback that however many seats they in their program, they fill,” Luizzi said at the Jan. 10 meeting of the Town Council Education Committee, held in Town Hall.

“If they have 20 seats, then they have 20 students to fill those seats. So, when you ask whether there are seats available in similar programs in other [school] districts, the answer is, no, there are not… so the need is real, and it exists.”

He added: “The goal of this program is to provide New Canaan students with an alternative program that combines high academic standards with a research-based therapeutic program in order to provide an educational experience that is caring, supportive, and engaging for students who currently struggle to find success in a traditional high school program.”

As detailed in his proposed $90.7 million budget for next fiscal year, Luizzi is looking to hire one general education teacher, one psychologist/social worker, one special education teacher, and one teaching assistant for the program. He said he’s open to filling these positions with existing NCHS staff members and having them move between the two buildings. Students in the program would continue utilizing New Canaan High’s existing nursing and guidance staff to “keep the experience as parallel as possible.”

Further connections between the program and the high school would be fostered by the teaching assistant who would work with NCHS teachers to schedule classes and other programs for the students, and serve as the liaison between students and local business owners who can provide opportunities for community service, internships, and special project partnerships. (Luizzi said he’s already met with the director of the New Canaan Nature Center to discuss partnership opportunities.)

And to ensure that the students are getting the specialized attention and instruction that they need, Luizzi said that his goal is to have a teacher-to-student ratio of approximately 1:3 throughout the school day, or slightly higher depending on student enrollment and scheduling.

Although the curricular for the program is still being developed, Luizzi said that there are already plans to implement an experiential learning component, a learning management system, a work/study component, and an opportunity for students to participate in extracurricular activities at NCHS. And if the town allows use of the former Outback building, Luizzi said there will be plans to make use of the commercial kitchen for “educational experiences.”

Pianka told members of the committee that there currently are 16 New Canaan students that have been placed in alternative programs outside of the district (at a cost of about $60,000 per student) and about one-third of them would qualify for the program now being proposed. She added that based on the research her team has conducted, there are also several students currently within the school district that are not attending AIP, but would qualify for the proposed alternative program.

“There’s a big difference between what we can currently offer these kids and what we can offer them through this [proposed] program,” she said. “It’s not always a palatable perspective to take when a parent hears that their child will only be in school for two-and-a-half hours a day [through AIP]. So, we’re trying to respond to the need for a full-day program.”

Along with an opportunity to attend school full-time, Luizzi said that students will be able to foster a sense of pride in a space that is tailored specifically to their needs. “[The students] will start their day there and end their day there. They’ll all be together, so the program will grow a sense of identity and a reputation,” he said. “Some students may be accessing different services [outside of the building] throughout the day at different times, but they would be doing most activities from this program, which would become a sense of pride [for them].”

Pianka added that once a student is emotionally, physically, and academically ready to assimilate themselves back into a more traditional school setting, that option is also available to them.

And when asked whether the proposed program would be able to compete on the level of well-established private ones in the county, Pianka said that the curriculum that her team is planning has the potential to be a model for other towns.

“I believe that this program is built on a better practice model. The research that’s been done and the clinical team that worked on this has a lot of knowledge and a lot of skill,” she said. “We know who we need to recruit and hire to do this work, and I think that they will be better qualified than what I’m seeing out there and have been seeing for the last 12 years.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *