FAIRFIELD — Walking the quiet halls of a sand-colored brick building on Biro Street, teenagers greet Principal Gayle Donowitz by first name, with ease.
In one of the large Walter Fitzgerald Campus classrooms, a student is sketching out a mural. As the principal turns down the hall that Thursday morning, another teenager smiles and says, “Happy birthday, Gayle.”
Anything Donowitz corrects, she does with an upbeat softness, engaging each student by name with a sense of familiarity.
“It is a community,” she said. “While all schools have that flavor, here the relationship is what builds between and among everybody.”
Walter Fitzgerald Campus, a program for students from the town’s public high schools, has 34 students and 10 staff members. Five students have applied to Fairfield’s alternative high school for the next marking period, a number Donowitz expects to grow after winter break.
“My area of focus has always been about special education, and also about making education accessible to everyone,” Donowitz said. “It’s not just about if you have special needs or what the case may be, but really how it is that we can engage in learning and loving to learn.”
A Brooklyn, N.Y., native, she began her career teaching special education in New York City schools. She gravitated toward working with high school students and transitioned into administrative roles.
When she moved to Connecticut, Donowitz found the experience to be “very close, but a whole new world” compared to her city life. Already retaining a school principal certification, she earned a superintendent certification at the University of Connecticut, not aspiring to the role, but aiming to learn about education specifically in the state.
Donowitz spent time working in Greenwich and Bridgeport, as well as directing education at Boys & Girls Village and for LEARN Regional Education Service Center. She eventually began to feel her life was more about management, however, missing student relationships, direct work in schools and the real feeling of making a difference.
That was when Donowitz saw a job opening at what was then called the “alternative high school” in Fairfield. Five years ago, she took a job coordinating special education for the town’s public high schools and as a supervisor at the alternative high school.
“I love it, and I’m really blessed,” Donowitz said. “It’s what I wanted to do with my life, and I am doing it.”
It is her second year full-time at the school as its principal and her 40th working in education.
Now living in Guilford — and teaching yoga in her spare time — Donowitz counts the program’s focus on relationships as part of the learning process and said the opportunity to see and fill needs highlights of her job.
“I think it’s what makes my life meaningful. In terms of why I come to work, the relationships with the students and the community of learners here — the staff and students — is paramount,” she said.
An element Donowitz loves is that staff will look at alternatives at Walter Fitzgerald, amending programs to get each student excited about his or her education.
“Each of the students has something to teach, and from that we learn and can actually expand their lives,” she said. “I’ve watched students come in here not believing they even cared about learning and go on, not only caring about learning, but caring about their life post-high school and going on to university.”
Teaching at Walter Fitzgerald does not generally fit the mold of other district schools. A smaller and tight-knit community, everyone is on a first- name basis.
Staff use positive behavior interventions, as well as restorative practices that focus less on right and wrong and more on moving on and learning from mistakes. They emphasize project-based learning over more traditional methods. More focus is also on alternative paths to the college route, including trade or career preparation.
“Our world is not made up of people that simply have college diplomas,” Donowitz said. “Our world is made up of people that have an impact in the world in which they live.”
Its site tucked among a parochial school and church, the campus is linked to other district public schools. In the community service learning program, students work with Fairfield elementary school students.
“What’s special about that is they’re going into elementary schools as the leader, as the young adult who’s responsible, as the person who has a place,” Donowitz said. “Also, for some of them, they didn’t have a great experience at a younger age, so it gets them some healing around that for them to see themselves actually as a positive member of a community that they didn’t otherwise identify that way with.”
In one case where a student was not excited about the community service learning program, staff adjusted it to be a presentation project, where he taught fifth-graders about science, rather than working more hands-on with the students. He returned from college this Thanksgiving, Donowitz said, and said he had done many presentations and PowerPoints and was prepared to do them well.
The principal, now in her fifth year in Fairfield, has already been part of change at the campus. Walter Fitzgerald is a moniker the school recently took on in honor of a teacher and coach that spent his career working with the district’s co-op program.
Fairfield combined the co-op offering with its special education program to create what is now the Walter Fitzgerald Campus. Donowitz was part of the renaming, a step she sees as helping the school gain its sense of unified identity.
On that morning as Donowitz walked the halls, classrooms were subdued on the verge of winter break. One bulletin board decorating the wall displayed photos of students and staff.
“The students who go to school here are somewhat brilliant, they’re valuable members of the community and they have a lot to contribute,” she said. “They take a little bit more effort and perhaps a little bit more resources, but what they have to give back and the outcomes that we achieve are not only worthy, they’re essential.”