The Darien Board of Education on Tuesday considered a request to expand the A Better Chance program from six to eight students.
The program, which has been in operation in Darien for 30 years, provides four-year academic and boarding scholarships to highly motivated and academically promising female minority students from underserved areas in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York.
Ron Hammer, co-president of the ABC program's board of directors, explained that the organization is hoping to renovate its house on Brookside Road — which it leases from the First Congregational Church for $1 a year — in order to expand the program from six to eight students, i.e. two for each school class.
Hammer said ABC Darien plans to launch a capital campaign to raise the money to renovate the house — with an ambitious goal of completing construction and expanding the program in time for the 2014-2015 school year.
Superintendent of Schools Stephen Falcone said expanding the program to eight students brings it in line with the other ABC programs in the state.
"Unlike most of the other programs in the public schools in Connecticut, Darien has six students, whereas others have eight and as many as 16 students," he said.
Last year the Board of Education approved the expansion of the program from six students to seven and this year ABC has two students each in grades 9, 10, and 11, and one student in grade 12. In 2013-2014 the program will go back to six students — prior to expanding to eight the following school year, providing that construction plans come to fruition (ABC must get approval from local land use boards for construction).
Falcone said during the past 30 years the program "has been a wonderful experience — the community has benefitted, the ABC students have benefitted, and the kids at DHS have benefitted."
He said the additional two students would have a "minimal impact on staffing," however he acknowledged that it was ultimately up to the board "to consider the degree to which the Darien Public Schools can accommodate two additional students." He said the ABC students are "self-sufficient in terms of transportation," supplies and other school-related expenses.
"Certainly having a pair students in each grade level is a benefit — just for the social factor, the academic factor — having a peer, having a colleague, having someone at that same level to both celebrate and commiserate with," Falcone said.
He pointed out that the district already accommodates students each year through the AFS, Rotary International, ISE and Youth for Understanding programs, as well as exchange students.
"I see this as a wonderful opportunity for an appropriate expansion of this successful program, which brings so much to the community," Falcone said.
Hammer explained that the ABC program doesn't just involve boarding the girls at the house and sending them to DHS, "we provide an entire support network — we have host families — every girl has one, sometimes two host families — and they go one weekend a month to stay with those host families." In addition there are two resident directors at the house who provide mentorship.
He added that "all of the girls go on to college," and many have gone on to have successful careers.
ABC board member Susan Wilson said ABC National recommends that each program have a minimum of eight students, "however we never had the room for that many due to space constraints."
Wilson explained that most of the ABC girls are identified in elementary school by organizations including Reach Prep "for their high intellect, desire to learn and parental support."
Girls who apply for the program in their eighth grade year must go through initial screening with ABC National, Wilson said. They are selected based on their academic performance. The girls then choose where they want to go, she said.
The national organization then feeds 40-50 resumes to the local, Darien program, "and from there we narrow that down to about four finalists," Wilson said. Each finalist then goes through three-day interview process, including tours of the schools and the town, before a final one or two students are selected.
The Board of Education is expected to vote on the request at its next meeting.