Thursday, May 30, 2024

ALPHA – Not a Punishment But A Gift

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By Barbara Heimlich
Editor

The ALPHA program is an extension of our high schools, designed to provide more intense and personal support to high school students who have difficulty navigating conventional high school. The program has been around for over thirty years. It typically cared for about 20 students, but because of increased demand it has slowly expanded and now has an enrollment of between 38 and 41 students.

ALPHA is presently under scrutiny by the Board of Education and Town Council with threats of deleting the program.

At a meeting of ALPHA parents and students led by Kate Mascia, Coordinator Alternative Services/Alpha, she started with “the disinformation that is swirling out there”. According to Mascia the false narratives claim that ALPHA classes only serve 6 students daily with high absenteeism.

It was noted that between 26 and 31 students attend daily (70-80%), but there is a strong effort by the students to stay connected. Students reach out to students, people knock on doors  – where are you—we want you!

ALPHA is designed to help students who have difficulty in the traditional school structure.  According to Mascia, school avoidance is one of the issues that they work on.

There are many different reasons for not wanting to go to school – it could be there is a learning disability, serious phobias, anxiety issues. Not every child is able to adapt to large high school classes and hallways. Some must work and are the only financial support for their family. Some kids have been abandoned by their families; some are homeless.

The ALPHA staff works with these students. There are 4 full time teachers, a part time math science, PE Health and Reading, most of whom have been working with the students at ALPHA for over ten years. There is a dedicated social worker, two classroom assistants, a security guard and the program administrator, Kate Mascia. “We have no overhead, no budget, we get approximately $140 a year (yes this is a correct number): all money that we receive is through grants. The only costs ALPHA incurs is for staff salaries. Though we have tripled in size we have less staff than when I started,” according to Mascia.

ALPHA is a Tier 3 Intervention. As a Tier 3, these students receive more intensive, individualized support to improve their behavioral and academic outcomes. Tier 3 strategies work for students with developmental disabilities, autism, emotional and behavioral disorders, and students with no diagnostic label at all.

They are also the only Credit Recovery School in the District: Credit recovery involves taking, or retaking, classes that were unsuccessfully completed during the regular school year. This means enrolling in an accredited program in which you study the material outside of regular school hours – whether after school, during the summer or on the weekends – to gain the course credit you didn’t obtain originally. Once you’ve passed a credit recovery course, you’ll be back on track to graduate and ready to move on to complete other classes in the high school curriculum. If ALPHA is pulled, all the progress these students have made earning credits will not go towards a high school diploma.

If the ALPHA program is discontinued, the students will be outplaced, which means.  Outplacing  education services with external providers or contractors to manage aspects of their administrative or educational needs.  This can cost approximately 100,000$. If even 4 or 5 of ALPHA students get outplaced, it will equal or exceed the cost of the program. The BOE seems to think that this is a good idea, and that it will save $580,000. (The cost of a student in ALPHA is about $14,500 per student.)

According to Mascia she is sometimes directed to take currently outplaced students because the district does not want to pay the tuition fees of students who don’t attend their outplacements.  This clearly saves the district money.  However, I cannot be mandated to take these non-attending students from the high school or the outplacements and then have their non-attendance be used against my program as a reason to close it.   

ALPHA provides social, emotional learning (SEL) and a safe space for practical learning, building self-esteem and career guidance (they are in partnership with The Work Place and Continuing Education). The nurturing and positive messaging by teachers and staff builds these students up and helps them find their way.

The following are comments on the benefits and outcomes of ALPHA from students, parents and grandparents:

To Stratford Board of Education Members,

This letter is to ask you that you do not cut the ALPHA program from the budget.

One reason is that it is an excellent program that has helped many young adults succeed in life. One example is my oldest granddaughter who attended the ALPHA Program and graduated from that program in 2019. She has since attended Nichols College and graduated from there with English and Psychology degrees with Honors Distinction. She is now working at DCF. She is your success story because of the education she received in that program. My youngest granddaughter is presently in that program. She is a Junior this year and I would like her to have the same opportunities to be taught by excellent staff who not only are excellent educators but also caring individuals.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Hi, I’m a senior at Alpha, I’m there full time with honor rolls and going to college. I wanted to come here and say that I wouldn’t be where I’m at if it weren’t for Alpha. I’ve only gotten three years of High School and gained so much credit while being there. Without Alpha, I wouldn’t have been getting ready for graduation, college, and starting a new chapter in my life. To be given this opportunity that I’ve always prayed for means so much to me, and I know you don’t understand but I am hoping that you will listen to me. I, myself, have struggled with coming to school due to personal issues and my age, but as soon as I signed my forms to go to Alpha, my attendance has been improving and I’ve been comfortable being at school. So many other kids struggle with this and credits, for those who are choosing to remove this program do not understand what this means to us. You’ll be failing these students without even knowing. I also want to say that it isn’t fair for you to also cut other things off like the librarians and teachers that help the ones who need help with reading and math. You are failing these students without even knowing you are, so I am inviting you, the council and board of education to come to Alpha, hear my story or even stay a day and learn how things are at Alpha.

This is an official letter to Thank you for the help provided for my son at the Alpha Program of Stratford High School, King Street, Stratford, CT.

If it was not for the kind staff and patient staff at the Alpha program that helped cured my sons OCD and Anxiety problem of attending school.

I and my husband can not thank you enough for your support and superb education my son has received. Sincerely,

Mother L:

Im here tonight to advocate for the ALPHA program but more importantly to tell you about my incredible daughter.

My family moved to Stratford in the summer of 2012 from New York City… we had suburban dreams of a nice house with a yard and a dog and were thrilled to enroll our daughter (un-named) in 1st grade at Eli Whitney Elementary School. (un-named) was bright and creative and inquisitve…she loved fairies and designing and sewing her own clothes. She was an exceptional reader, a Presidential award-winning scholar, and a favorite amongst her teachers and peers. She was sensitive though…perhaps overly critical of herself, and a daydreamer.

She moved on to Flood Middle School and started off strong. But something started to change in (un-named). The daydreaming grew into an inability to focus in class. The self-criticism became self-loathing. The sensitivity was developing into anxiety. She was diagnosed with ADHD, we got her a 504 plan with some accommodations for testing and preferred seating in class…but things were not improving.

And then Covid hit. (un-named) spent that time hiding from the world in her room like most teenagers, but when it came time to emerge, she was a changed child.

She started High School at Bunnell with such crippling anxiety she would vomit in the nurses office or the guidance room every single day. She would hide out with her social worker when she was at school – and would be sent home multiple times a week because she couldnt handle the day. Therapy and medication werent working. She would literally shake with anxiety.

The first hospital stay was spring of her freshman year. After the second hospitalization in the fall of her sophomore year, we transferred her out of Stratford Schools. Her sophomore year she put herself in the ICU.

During this time (un-named) was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. BPD is a mental health condition that affects the way people feel about themselves and others, making it extremely hard to function in everyday life. It includes a pattern of unstable, intense relationships, as well as impulsiveness and an unhealthy way of seeing themselves. Impulsiveness involves having extreme emotions and and /or doing things without thinking about them first. BPD is not treatable with medication. On a good day, (un-named) is charming; shes smart, sarcastic and hysterical. She is a wonderful friend, deeply empathetic and her teachers and peers love her. But when she is triggered, (un-named)s emotions take over. She cant make a rational decision, listen to anyone, or regulate her emotions. What seems small to someone else is monumental to her.

We brought her back to Stratford Schools her junior year, set her up with an IEP, and enrolled her in the ALPHA program. ALPHA gave us hope. At ALPHA, the classes were smaller. (un-named) had a whole team of people to help her, who understood her challenges and could help her. She still had BPD, and when the bad days came (and came they did) the team here was better prepared to handle it. (un-named) stopped refusing school. The vomiting stopped. Mrs. Mascia, Ms. Kamal, Ms. Mot- they KNOW (un-named) and love her despite her not being a typical student or child. (un-named) could not function in a traditional  school environment. Nor could she function in AIP- she is not disruptive in any way and exceedingly bright. ALPHA provided a safe space for her to learn.

My point in sharing her story with you is that I think people have a misconception of what ALPHA is and the population they serve. I know I did. I thought the kids who stole cars and fought in class were sent to ALPHA. Little did I know ALPHA is not a punishment, its a GIFT to students who need something a little smaller, a little safer, and a little more understanding. These kids are special, they are not broken and do not deserve to be thrown in some bucket environment like AIP where no learning takes place AT ALL.

The way the world is today, you can expect more kids to need a learning space like ALPHA in the future, not less. The mental health crisis in this state is critical.

Schools will need to adapt to this and expand these types of programs not cut them. (un-named) has an IEP, and if she was not finished with school, I would be forced to sue the school system next year and force outplacement for her, at a serious cost to the district. I can promise you I am not the only one who will take this route.

Thank you for taking the time to listen to my story. Please consider (un-named) and so many others like her when you vote on the budget.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I now have a better understanding of the Alpha program and what an important role it plays in supporting students with special needs. I hope that it continues in spite of the sadly underfunded budget passed by the republican Council members. I also hope math and reading coaches and librarians survive the severe budget cuts which do not fulfill the Interim Superintendent’s requested funding.

  2. Anyone on our town council/BOE who thinks outplacing students will save the district money, clearly has no grasp on how public education works.

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