Over the last six years, the space that houses the school district’s Colchester Alternative Program (CAP) has gone into limbo multiple times, putting the program at risk of cancellation.

Three times within the past six years, the owner of the space the district rents out of has put it up for sale.

At the Colchester School Board’s Nov. 16 meeting, the board unanimously approved moving the program – which provides opportunities for the district's most vulnerable students — into the district's Central Office building. This will give the program not only the prolonged security of a permanent space but the opportunity to thrive in new ways.

The Central Office, meanwhile, is set to move to a slightly larger space at 59 Rathe Road, which would allow the district to recoup employees who have offices in the school, giving those spaces back to students.

What is CAP?

CAP supports students who may have experienced things like learning, behavioral or attendance challenges, mental health challenges, autism or have been impacted by poverty, addiction or incarceration.

Its mission statement proclaims providing an environment that uses alternative strategies and a more individualized approach to meet the unique needs of each student. Students who attend CAP are usually in grades 9 to12.

“What we can't risk is having a program that serves our most vulnerable learners at Colchester High School, in the middle of the school year, to not have a home for learning,” said Colchester Superintendent Amy Minor. “That would be devastating for those kids in that program.”

Some students stay in CAP for the entire day while possibly taking some electives at the high school. Others are part of a hybrid program with Colchester High School or Tech Programs. Still others may take classes at CAP in the afternoon to catch up on credits in order to graduate.

One of the core differences for a CAP student is that baked into the entire school day is a “Social-Emotional Learning” approach. In addition to the teachers at CAP, Jaime Wark, a full-time clinical coordinator and counselor, is an ever-present resource for students throughout the day.

Wark said she frequently talks to students about coping strategies to keep their learning successful.

“I do therapeutic groups with the kids so we pick different topics and it's really about how to cope, how to tolerate,” Wark said. “I do a lot of one-to-one check-ins with the kids.”

Math and science teacher Phil Gulizio said having Wark available at all hours is a key part of the program.

“There'll be moments in classes when kids need to take a break or talk to Jamie and she's available right down the hall,” Gulizio said. “Having that option is really important.”

Wark said her being there provides an opportunity for students who wouldn’t have a resource like her otherwise.

“A lot of kids just can't get to therapy, so I think having someone, a consistent person in their life that they can choose to check in with during the week is really helpful,” Wark said.

The history of alternative programs in Colchester is long with multiple iterations. But what makes CAP unique besides its approach to learning, is the immense success it’s been able to achieve with it. More students who attend CAP graduate than any other previous iteration of alternative programming.

Minor said the therapeutic aspect of the CAP program is one of the reasons why having a separate space for it is so important. In many ways, a CAP class is different from the typical CHS class, but that doesn’t mean CAP is separate from the Colchester schools community.

The awkwardness of the current space

The current space however, a former dentist’s office, across the street from Colchester Middle School, sometimes makes students feel set apart.

Walking through the space, it’s obvious the amount of effort the staff of five has put into making it as comfortable and conducive to learning as possible.

That being said, what’s glaringly obvious upon walking around, is its awkwardness and that it was not designed to be a school.

Classrooms are smaller and don’t flow together. Coming out of one of the bathrooms in the space, you walk directly into where humanities is taught.

Most of all, there’s not a single room in the building where all staff and students can gather and when students need to go to CHS either for an elective or a class, they must take an often cold and snowy trek along a path through a patch of woods dividing the two buildings.

“The path is not ideal,” said CAP special educator Kelly Burrino.

Gulizio said a space for all students and staff to come together is a really attractive aspect of the new building.

“Just by being in the same space together I think would help our sense of community,” he said.

Plans to move

The move to the Central Office, whose building is just off the parking lot of CHS, would move the program closer to the high school and provide better parking. The space is also slightly bigger, giving the district an opportunity to redesign it to be more conducive to learning.

The district worked with Black River Design to come up with different floor plans for the new space, including a lunch room for students to gather at as well as a washer/dryer and shower for students who aren’t having those needs met at home.

The Central Office, meanwhile, is set to move to a slightly larger space at 59 Rathe Road, which would allow the district to recoup employees who have offices in the school, giving those spaces back to students.

Minor said construction to get the Central Office building ready is expected to occur over the spring and summer with hope to be completed by Aug. 1 for CAP to start at the onset of the 2022-23 school year.

Renovations on the building are expected to be anywhere between $250,000 to $350,000 as well as an additional $45,000 per year for the new space on Rathe Road.

“The message this will send to our students and families is that we're giving them a more permanent home and a home where they don't have to walk through the woods on the path,” Minor said. “It’s right on the high school campus. I think that’s going to have a really positive impact on our students.”

This story was changed on Jan 5 at 9:26 to correctly name the Colchester Alternative Program.

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