Thursday, April 25, 2024

ALPHA

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Another hidden Stratford treasure facing extinction.

By David Chess

The ALPHA program is an extension of our high schools, designed to provide more intense and personal support to troubled and challenged high school students. 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 40 students.

The program is designed to help people who can’t make it in our traditional school structure for many different reasons. There are children with learning disabilities who get lost and left behind in our large high school classes and hallways. Some have serious phobias and are afraid to come to school; other kids have behavioral issues. Some must work and are the only financial support for their family. Some kids have been abandoned by their families; some are homeless. Fifty percent of kids have special needs. Some had been outsourced (at $70,000/year) and were able to transition back to ALPHA. Stereotypes don’t work when characterizing the children in the program. What they all have in common is that they were failing and that they would not be graduating from high school.

The students attend school during the usual high school hours, 7:20 a.m. to 2 p.m.  They are allowed to be absent five days per marking period. They take the same core curriculum as every other high schooler, with core courses and electives. The students get a lot more one-on-one attention, though staffing has been dramatically reduced over the last ten years while the number of kids has doubled. Classes have breaks built in every thirty minutes to help the students maintain focus and burn off energy. The staff is incredibly dedicated to the students, and the teachers stay with the kids throughout the four years that they are in the program. The teachers truly get to know their students. (Studies show that consistent relationships and trust with teachers can have a profound impact on the students.)

There are six teachers (1/2 full time and the rest part time), 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, Kathryn Mascia.

How do we measure success?

This past year, of 13 seniors, 12 graduated high school. These are students who for the most part would never have made it in a traditional school setting.

This compares to a rate of 87% (which is down since Covid – it was 93.5%) in our High Schools.

But this is truly the remarkable thing: many of these children enter the program lost, but over the course of several years, with the nurturing and positive messaging of the teachers and staff, these students are built up, and find their way.

While I was there, a graduate came to visit. A tall thin black girl, really shy. She wanted to tell the staff that she just got accepted into a dental hygienist program. She never thought she could do that. It was all hugs and tears of joy.

This is the program ear-marked to be deleted. 

So, what can we expect to save with the removal of the ALPHA program?

The anticipated costs savings to the BOE is $580,000. This is a program managing 40 children, so the cost is about $14,500 per student. This is not too far off for the cost of educating our mainstream children, which is about $19,000 per child. (The $19,000 has lots of other elements to it, so it’s not a simple comparison). The cost of out-placing a special needs child or highly disruptive child is on average $75,000 per child.

The intangible cost and ripples are staggering. Larger class sizes with children that won’t stay in their seats can be disruptive. More stress on our teachers, more teachers leaving our system and going elsewhere. (Statewide there are over 2000 open positions for teachers). Our graduation rate and academic scores will continue to fall. Families who prize education won’t want to buy a home in Stratford, so your property value will stagnate or fall. Worst of all, we are abandoning our children—the children of our community. It is shameful to neglect our children. It is shameful to not have a space where these kids who don’t fit in can find themselves, and find their hidden potential.

3 COMMENTS

  1. I am a retired paraprofessional from the Stratford School District. I was employed with the ALPHA program for nineteen years. Prior to this program I worked with the Special Needs and Dyslexia
    Programs for a combined total of thirty-five years. I am disheartened with the proposed decision taken by the Town Council and the Board of Education members to discontinue the ALPHA Program.

    All of the educators that I worked with in these programs were extremely dedicated to the students
    encouraging them to attend school and not drop out, because the two high schools are overcrowded;
    and some of these students were very anxious about attending school.

    All of the students that I had worked with through the years have graduated and achieved very
    good jobs. Some have also become involved with our community and volunteer with the
    Stratford Animal Shelter and Sterling House.

    I am in full agreement with Mr. Chess’ comments and especially proud of the ALPHA students
    that commented.

    Sincerely,

    Theresa Palmieri

    • The ALPHA program is a “jewel” in the Stratford Public School system. The loss to the community would be widespread.
      Thank you for your comments.

  2. To cut this program is a devastating act of destruction. The program has shown wonderful results abd helped bring success to students who otherwise would have been lost. Stratford needs to wake up and support its young people. Nothing is more important, To continue on this path of degrading our schools will not only harm young people and teachers, but will bring down our community as well.

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