"It's a wonderful opportunity to honor Walter's contributions," Peter Holskin, who taught at the Alternative High School before his retirement, told the Board of Education last week.
Holskin said Fitzgerald, who died in May 2010 at the age of 61, was "a skillful, creative educator" and "a man of integrity, a man that cared, a man that gave his all for the program and students in it and had a lasting effect on students in the program."
In a letter to Superintendent of Schools David G. Title, Holskin said students, staff and graduates of the Alternative High School support the request. The school is designed for students who may have difficulty adjusting to the standard curriculum at the town's two other high schools, or have personal troubles. The school has about 40 students this year, and is housed in a Biro Street building formerly used as a school by St. Emery's Church.
Fitzgerald, the late husband of former Assistant Superintendent of Schools Margaret Mary Fitzgerald, grew up in Fairfield and graduated from Andrew Warde High School, now called Fairfield Warde High School. He taught at Fairfield Woods Middle School before continuing his teaching career for 25 years at the Alternative High School, Holskin said.
Fitzgerald also coached boys basketball at Roger Ludlowe High School, Fairfield High School and Fairfield Warde High School.
Holskin said it is important for a school to have an identity and that if the Alternative High School is named for Fitzgerald, students would become acquainted with his legacy and his impact on the school. He said Fitzgerald's "spirit and his presence are still alive today" because Fitzgerald and his wife had established a scholarship for students who graduate from the Alternative High School.
Margaret Mary Fitzgerald said in a letter to Title that she and her late husband's family are "both humbled and honored" by the request to name the school after her husband, "and appreciate the efforts of those who support this idea."
"Throughout his career as a Fairfield teacher in the COOP/Alternative high school program, Walter was deeply committed to making a positive difference in the lives of his students through developing a personal connection with each of them," she said in the letter to Title. "He strongly believed in the importance of offering a curriculum that was engaging and relevant to the students. No one was a stronger advocate for alternative education than he."
The decision to rename a school rests solely with the Board of Education, and if the request is to name a school after a person, that person has to have served in the school district for at least 10 years and be separated from the district for at least three years, according to the school board's Policy Guide.
School board member John Convertito said he thought giving the Alternative High School an identity would be "a marvelous idea" and that, while he didn't know Fitzgerald, it seemed appropriate to name it after him. Convertito said he'd also like to see a mission statement for the school and possibly a mascot. "I applaud you for your efforts," he said to Holskin. "I'd like to see it go that much further."
Pam Iacono, the school board vice chairwoman, called the proposal "a wonderful idea" and asked what the exact name would be.
Title said, "I don't think we've gotten that far yet."
"If this is a concept you seem to be interested in, we can work with staff and students and see what works best to communicate the right message," Title said.
Convertito said he didn't think the word "Alternative" should be in the school's new name. "If we're going to give it an identity, let's give it an identity as a high school," he said.
Paul Fattibene, a school board member, noted that the other two public high schools in Fairfield begin with the name of the town and thought that might work with a new name for the Alternative High School.
Board member Jennifer Maxon Kennelly also seemed onboard with naming the Alternative High School in honor of Fitzgerald. She said naming a gym for the longtime teacher "doesn't cover it. That's the feeling I'm getting."
"It's very exciting to hear of someone who's so worthy of this," she said.
Philip Dwyer, the board chairman, said, "I have no doubt Walter took excellent care of the children under his care. It's an honor that's well deserved."
Dwyer said the school board plans to have the proposed renaming on its Oct. 22 agenda for a vote and that the public could comment before the board votes. The board meets on that date at 7:30 p.m. in the Education Center, 501 Kings Highway East.