Stamford schools’ program for at-risk kids is up for renewal. Here’s why supporters say it matters.

Students enter Stamford High School in Stamford, Conn. Monday, Aug. 30, 2021.

Students enter Stamford High School in Stamford, Conn. Monday, Aug. 30, 2021.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

STAMFORD — Associate superintendent for Stamford Public Schools Michael Fernandes was recently asked how he measures the success of a program catering to the most troubled students in the school district.

“By keeping them in school,” he said during a meeting of the Board of Education’s Teaching, Learning and Community Committee last week.

That’s one of the main goals of the REACH program, supplied by outside provider Educational Based Services and designed to help students with emotional and behavioral problems increase their attendance rates and improve their academic scores.

This year, the contract with EBS officially ends. Officials are hoping to renew it, while adding a second high school class. The contract would be worth $2.2 million.

The resolution to approve the REACH contract will go before the board of education’s Fiscal Committee in a few weeks, before going to the full board.

Last week, its supporters made their pitch for keeping the program and renewing the contract with EBS.

Over the past two years, 59 students have taken classes in the REACH program. Of those, 85 percent remained in district, with the rest placed out of district. Six students, or 10 percent, were able to graduate out of the program and back into regular education classrooms.

But with the successes have also come failures.

Two students in the program were currently in detention, Fernandes said. And those students who were placed out of district were because officials decided they could not offer them the supports they needed.

“This program is not perfect folks,” Fernandes said. “I’m going to be honest with you. It doesn’t work for all students ... We’ve had tremendous successes and we’ve had failures.”

REACH started in Stamford four years ago, in two classes at Stark Elementary School. It has grown every year, adding two classes at Cloonan Middle School, and one each at Stamford High School and Westover Magnet Elementary School.

Beyond helping struggling students, the program has another benefit: it keeps them from going to out-of-district programs.

Placing students in programs outside of the Stamford Public Schools system tends to come with a hefty price tag. The average cost per student is $88,450, which includes transportation and is paid out of the Stamford Public Schools budget.

The cost per student in the REACH program, on the other hand, is between $38,000 and $47,700.

Currently, the REACH program serves 41 students in Stamford. The cost of sending those students to programs not in Stamford would be roughly $3.6 million. In comparison, the cost to keep the 41 students in the REACH program is about $2 million, Fernandes said.

And Fernandes said all of the students currently in the program would be at risk of going to an outside provider if not for REACH.

“Every one of the students in this program would not be in Stamford because we would not be able to manage their behavior without this program,” he said. “Every one of them. And there’s a benefit to their families not needing to send their student out of district on a bus a long distance away.”

Before entering into the agreement with REACH four years ago, Stamford schools tried offering similar services in-house. The experiment was not a success.

“It was probably the most unsuccessful thing that we’ve ever done,” said Superintendent Tamu Lucero. “We did not have the expertise to be able to meet the needs of these students.”

During the April 5 presentation, Fernandes described some of the students who have been in the REACH program in Stamford since it began.

The harrowing stories included a student involved in a drive-by shooting where bullets penetrated the student’s home, another student who witness his friend die from a gun shot, and another who witnessed repeated instances of her father abusing her mother.

Other students experienced the death of their parents; one student watched his mother overdose on drugs on multiple occasions.

“These are significant challenges that they have, challenges that affect them when they come to school,” Fernandes said.

Those challenges can manifest in a variety of ways, including anti-social behavior, physical and verbal aggression and non-compliance.

“These are students that our staff struggle with the most,” he said. “This program has helped many of these students over the years.”

REACH classrooms generally include about eight students, who are taught different subjects. In the classroom are one special education teacher, two registered behavior technicians, and a social worker or psychologist and behavioral analyst, who both split their time between two classrooms.

Students in the group get daily instruction on social emotional learning and weekly individual counseling.

The program at Westover started last year, and was created for kindergarten students in the district.

“Our schools at the elementary level have seen significant concerns with kindergarten students coming in post-COVID, many of them not going to preschool,” Fernandes said.

Fernandes said the district has seen the most success at the high school level, where two students in the program had a grade-point average of 3.9 out of 4.

Students identified for the program tend to be out of class more often than in class, Fernandes said.

And data shows that attendance rates also improved drastically when students attended REACH. The average attendance of students in REACH at Cloonan and Stark was above 90 percent for each.

Fernandes said that number would be as low as 20 to 25 percent for some of the students if they were in regular education classes.

“These students would not be in school without this program,” he said.