The Twilight Program at Bloomfield Public Schools in Essex County may only serve a small number of students, but it has had an incredible impact since launching last school year – and the district is celebrating its success.
Kelly Reer, supervisor of special education; and Joseph Fleres, assistant superintendent/director of curriculum, recently spoke with School Board Notes about how the program is making a difference for students and their families.
The alternative education program, housed in Bloomfield High School, is open during the regular school year from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Students can take advantage of transportation to and from the program.
Students who attend need emotional support and an alternative to the regular school day, Reer said. Some of the students suffer from school avoidance/phobia, anxiety, or other emotional struggles. “Right now, we have 14 students,” she said. “They are mix of general education and special education students.”
Five school staff members work an extended school day in addition to two paraprofessionals that devote themselves exclusively to the Twilight Program, Fleres said.
The district previously had an agreement with Bloomfield College, which involved paying a nominal rental fee to serve certain students, Fleres said. But eventually, the college needed the space back.
“They were very generous and kind to us for a long time, but it was not our home turf,” Fleres said.
So, administrators at the school sat down and tackled how to serve these students, and they ultimately decided that an after-hours program at the high school was the best option. Since the program involves staff having to work extra hours, it entails additional necessary costs. “We made the decision with our board of education’s support, and we said, ‘These kids are well worth it,’” Fleres said.
“Our staff is really flexible in giving students what they need and delivering it how they need it,” Reer said. “If someone is having an off day, we can accommodate that – and we have constant communication with parents.”
While the district is happy to provide the program for individual students as long as they need support, the ultimate goal is always to integrate them back into the general education program, Reer said. “For some of them, that is what they strive for,” she said. “For some of them, that is terrifying.”
“It really depends on the student,” Reer said. “If a student needs to stay a little longer, they are more than welcome to stay for six months or a year.”
She recalled one student who went to the program last year and then transitioned back into the general student population, where he’s a football player. “That was his goal,” she said.
The idea that the program does not have to be permanent is something the district tries to drive home with parents and students, Fleres said, adding that sometimes parents can be wary of their child being labeled. “We make clear that the goal is to get them out,” he said. “We understand they may need a little help and TLC, but the goal is to matriculate them into the high school population.”
Sometimes, that’s not possible and sometimes a student moves back and forth if they hit a roadblock, Fleres said. “It’s the definition of a fluid process,” he said. “Every day is a new day. Every day, we may have a different student with a different problem.”
Before entering the program, some of the students were not attending school on a regular basis, Reer said. “Now, they are showing up happy,” she said, noting that students from ninth to twelfth grade attend.
A Better Option
At many districts, the type of students who go to the Twilight Program would be sent to a school outside the district they live in – something that Bloomfield wanted to avoid, Fleres said.
“Our goal was to make sure our students have that experience within the four walls of our high school,” he said.
It was a large effort that required staff and logistical planning, but it’s been worth it, he said. Even though the district serves about 6,500 students, it was important to invest in these students that needed some extra help, he said.
The Twilight Program recently invited parents in for a “coffee chat conversation” – and about 75% attended, which Fleres said was an incredible turnout. “We had a wonderful two-hour conversation,” he said. A common remark was “You saved my child,” he said.
While he has been an educator for 20 years, Fleres said the meeting was one of the most fruitful he’s ever had with parents.
During the day, the students that the Twilight Program serves are at home, where they can receive speech therapy and other services as needed. “Then they come to us for the afternoon,” Reer said.
During the Twilight Program, students can meet with the school psychologist as needed or a staff member they trust, Reer said.
Students in the Twilight Program must fulfill their high school requirements and take the proper credits – just like any other high school student, Fleres said. “They take a wide range of courses like any high school student would take,” he said.
Built into every class is a social and emotional learning component, Reer said. “The kids feel very comfortable with our teachers,” she said, adding, however, that it is common for the students who attend to be rather quiet.
As to who attends the Twilight Program, Kelly McDermott, the school psychologist, often refers someone – or individual teachers may reach out to school administrators with concerns about a particular student, Reer said.
Then, a team will look at data and discuss what kind of support has been given to the student in the past, whether they have a 504 plan and what might be best for the student, who is also consulted. “No one wants to fail,” Reer said. “It doesn’t feel good, it feels horrible – and students want to do better, and they want to succeed. They understand the program is not a punishment – it’s an opportunity to feel better and have this community that they can feel attached to.”
The district is careful to guard against the program becoming a “‘catch all” for students that may be on the fringe, Fleres said. “We are clear as to what type of child should qualify for this, which keeps the numbers doable,” he said. “Do I think we could expand the program by a couple of students? I do. But we don’t want to overload it. If we have 40 kids in the program and they are not getting the attention they need, it is not worth it.”
One of the great things about the program is that when a student needs help, they can get it immediately rather than waiting for months to be placed out of district in a setting that will help them grow or overcome their struggles, Fleres said. “In the past, we couldn’t place a child as quickly as we’d like,” he said. “Here is a kid in crisis or who is school phobic or riddled with anxiety, and there would be a lot of red tape. In this case, it’s all done in house and almost immediately, we can make that transition once we deem that this child would be better suited for the Twilight Program. We can make that happen in a few days’ time.”
In addition to the two dedicated support paraprofessionals, the program is staffed by seven teachers who all work a full day before continuing their duties with the Twilight Program. “I can’t say enough about our staff members who have signed up so willingly,” Fleres said.
In addition to Reer and Fleres, other staff members who play a critical role in the Twilight Program include Sal Goncalves, superintendent; Suzanne Abendschoen, director of special services; and Gerard Roberto, Twilight Program coordinator; Molly Colasanti, a paraprofessional; David Bauer, also a paraprofessional; and Kelly McDermott, a school psychologist working with the program.
Having been with the district a long time, Reer said, “The program has been a wonderful addition to us and a wonderful addition to the high school. I have seen such success and growth in these students – and it’s wonderful to see.”