With the recent spate of medical spaces and apartment buildings planned along the Rte. 7 corridor, the property at 225 Danbury Rd. owned by Our Lady of Fatima (OLF) and the Catholic Church’s Bridgeport Diocese sitting empty since OLF Catholic Academy closed last year could have been ripe for commercial development.
But instead, a group of charter school developers has struck a deal to lease the building and, by August 2024, they plan to open a private school there geared to children in pre-K through sixth grade, with hopes to eventually grow it through eighth grade as well.
Called Schoolhouse Academy, the school is described by founders Carlo Schiattarella and Andrew McLaughlin as an “affordable” private school option for families interested in school choice. They’ve pegged their yearly tuition cost at $20,000 per student.
McLaughlin is the designer/architect focused on facility design and Schiattarella is the Columbia University-educated educator who’ve launching charter and private schools together in the New York and New Jersey area, including a high school in the Bronx that Schiattarella is still involved in. Both said they’re passionate about the charter school philosophy and parental choice.
Schiattarella describes Schoolhouse Academy’s approach as “project-based learning with a STEM focus,” that will rely heavily on the use of technology. The Stamford resident plans to send his own children to Schoolhouse.
“I didn’t have a lot of choice of where I can send my kids. I can’t afford $45,000 times three kids, or even one or two kids. So why isn’t there an affordable private school option in this area? This is about parental choice, to choose something that people can afford and a high-quality education,” he said.
McLaughlin contrasts their concept to the Long Island public school he attending growing up, where a thousand kids were in his graduating class.
“There were kids I never even met up on the stage. It’s a little overwhelming. So it’s really all about giving parents choices and the opportunity to control their kids’ education. Because we pride ourselves in a very open door policy with the parents,” he said. “We want to be partners with them and their kids’ education.”
Everything Happens for a Reason
They originally planned to open Schoolhouse Academy at Norwalk’s LaKota Oaks Conference Center (formerly known as Dolce), spending a lot of money and time on the application and review process. When that city’s Planning & Zoning Commission rejected the application to zone it as a school (primarily due to “traffic concerns”), the two had to look elsewhere.
They hoped to stay in the same part of Fairfield County after already meeting with prospective families from surrounding towns.
“We liked the parents that were coming to our open houses. They were engaged,” McLaughlin said, adding that families — including some from Wilton — had responded well to the price point and the program.
“There’s a real thirst for school choice,” Schiattarella added.
That’s when they learned about the (almost) turn-key school property at Our Lady of Fatima after being introduced to Wilton commercial real estate consultant Jeff Kaplan.
“They were only interested in sites that were already approved for school use, so the light bulb went on. There was the opportunity to have not only a school back in the [OLF] space, but some rent coming in to support the parish. It really fills the need, not only for the school side but for our community,” Kaplan said. “So I called Father Reggie.”
For his part, OLF’s Father Reginald Norman said closing the school a year ago was emotional and traumatic for his parish.
“So I wanted to proceed slowly, but also make sure that we had the right match, because the worst thing in the world to do is to have something controversial come in here.”
The church had fielded other offers, including those that involved tearing it down. One interested party wanted to make it a medical building.
“We just said no. We have to do what’s best for the community of our church and the town. And that’s how we went about it,” Norman said.
Schoolhouse Academy appealed.
“This company is more than reputable. They’ve saved other schools. They care about kids and learning. They match our principle very, very closely. So that was important,” Norman said, adding, “I wouldn’t have pushed this forward on the diocese level if I wasn’t confident in it. And I think the people will be pleased with what we’re bringing to them as well.”
Norman said the lease is going through final approvals. “Because it’s attached to a church, we have to go through certain approvals here. And over a certain dollar amount, you actually have to go to the Vatican, believe it or not.”
While that happens, the Bridgeport Diocese has given Schiattarella and McLaughlin the go-ahead to start publicizing and marketing efforts and gauging interest.
They’ll begin hosting open houses for interested families to learn more starting in late May or June.
Eventually, they’ll move forward with renovating the building, estimating they’ll invest between $2.5-$3 million for physical and cosmetic upgrades.
After the delays and expenses they went through in Norwalk, Schiattarella and McLaughlin are relieved they can expedite their timeline for occupancy for the 2024-25 school year.
“To find this school with no site planning involvement, and basically just walking in and making some cosmetic improvements is fantastic,” Schiattarella said. “Everything always happens for a reason.”
Wilton’s Director of Land Management/Town Planner Michael Wrinn confirmed that unless there were changes to the exterior, a school that reoccupied OLF as a school could do so without review by Wilton’s Planning & Zoning Commission. As long as they don’t change the footprint or exceed the number of students allowed under the property’s existing special permit, the most they’ll likely have to do is secure building permits for renovations.
The Schoolhouse Academy Program
Their startup funding will come through a group called boostED Finance, which provides a CFO. Schiattarella and McLaughlin will find a principal, determine what renovations are needed, and work with educational consultants attached to the project to build the curriculum and design the overall program.
Schiattarella described the overall approach as meeting the needs of the individual student and getting them to a “mastery-based level.”
“There’s not one curriculum that fits every student. So we collect a lot of data on how a student is doing on a weekly basis. So the kids won’t get onto the next segment or the next strand of learning until they’ve mastered the foundations of the prior strand,” he said.
Their model is 20 students per class, with one teacher and one assistant split between two classes. However, rather than have one grade-level teacher in a class the whole day, they will have subject specialists move from class to class at all grade levels.
They also plan to implement “cutting-edge technology” including interactive walls, and zSpace 3-D computers that mix reality and virtual reality.
They call their after-school and summer programs “Schoolhouse Plus,” which includes instruction in martial arts, fencing, chess, and more, in addition to “the typical baseball, basketball, and soccer,” plus exposure to visiting experts from a variety of fields.
While Schoolhouse Academy will not be affiliated with OLF or parochial in any way, it will follow a stipulation set by the church, which will continue to own the property.
“They did not want any learning materials that conflicted with the Catholic Church’s perspective and Schoolhouse Academy has agreed and doesn’t teach those things. So it’s in line with the Church’s mission but it’s a secular school,” Schiattarella said. “For instance, we believe that parents should be teaching sex ed, not the schools.” He added that would have been the same approach if the school had opened in Norwalk or anywhere else.
There may be some limited special education instruction or therapies.
“Regarding special ed, it depends on the severity of it. So we may not be set up for severe cases where, traditionally in a public school or a charter school, if they’re spending more than 60% outside the classroom or they’re in a self-contained [learning environment], we wouldn’t do that because there’s other schools that could do that better and are equipped for that,” Schiattarella said.
Initially, there won’t be scholarships offered but they’ll create an “opportunity scholarship fund” through fundraising and sponsorships.
“The private schools that are $45- or $50,000, they’re taking some of that tuition and then subsidizing others. We don’t feel that’s fair to parents and also you’re diluting the tuition that’s coming into the school,” Schiattarella said.
Overall, McLaughlin said they’re hoping parents will want to learn more about what is offered at Schoolhouse Academy. “This is high-level education at an affordable price. That’s our mission, and giving parents a choice.”