While Tuesday’s back to school for Wilton’s public school district was a very visible event, there’s another school in Wilton that is headed back for its first day today. This morning, students at Our Lady of Fatima‘s school will be returning for the start of their 2019-2020 school year, but this year they’ll actually find a major change when they walk through the door.

As of this Friday, Aug. 30, the private parochial school will officially launch as Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Academy, introducing a new classroom model and educational approach as well as a different governance. To mark the change, church and school officials will hold an event Friday morning with a formal ribbon cutting and celebrating a Mass led by Bishop Frank J. Caggiano.

The launch of the new academy model will incorporate a personalized approach to learning for each student in Pre-K3 through Grade 8, something introduced for the first time last year. In addition, educators at OLF will introduce multi-age classrooms for Pre-K through Grade 5. Outside of the classroom, families will now see a different Academy governance, more strongly rooted in the localized Wilton district.

Principal Stanley Steele says the move reflects both a confidence in the school by the Diocese of Bridgeport as well as a demonstration of how strong the community of families involved in the school is.

“That’s a strength of the school and the community–they don’t just want to come to a school, they want to feel part of it and part of that ownership is now they have some power to make decisions and change. A good example is our STEM program. A couple years ago we had a technology committee talking about, ‘We need more hands-on projects.’ We started STEM two years ago, we got the 3-D printer last year, and this year we’re going to STEAM, so we keep growing the program. But that’s parent-driven parent at the local level, saying this is what I want in my education for my child.”

The school will now be managed more directly by the local school board, an independence that the Diocese has been doing in other places as well, including Stamford. “It’s really them saying, we feel comfortable–you guys have your act together and you can govern yourselves and run your business. Because it’s a business too–we have payroll to meet, we have everything we have to deal with,” explains Kathryn Benedett Lupoli, a member of the OLF school board. “If you’re going to invest in a private school, you want to feel like you have some control. It meets our needs in that it meets the needs of the parents.” 

Benedett Lupoli is an example of just how tight the community of families involved with the school is. Her son graduated a few years ago, but she’s still very involved.

“It really transcends and that’s really what is so fantastic. It’s a fabulous community. My son is a senior at Fairfield Prep, but I still give my time here because I love the school and the school is a fantastic community. My closest friends are from this community. Our children not only went to school together, but we participated in all the social activities that are here at the school,” she says.

With a Pre-K through 8th Grade student body of 102 students, the families get involved where they’re able, whether that means volunteering in the classroom or helping with one of the three major fundraisers–an annual basketball tournament, a yearly gala, and a thrift shop whose proceeds benefit the school. There are also several social events in which families participate.

“I always say it’s not only for your child when you come to a parochial school. You have to understand that you’re giving your time, but in this particular school you really want to give your time and be involved,” Benedett Lupoli adds.

Personalized Approach to Learning

Last year OLF was one of six schools selected by the Diocese of Bridgeport to pioneer a personalized approach to learning.

“If you look at any of your children’s classes, you see a range of academic abilities, a range of academic needs, maybe range of skills and strengths,” says principal Steele. “So, how do you best differentiate and address these needs? That’s what falls into that umbrella of personalized education.”

This year all Fatima students in K-8 will work in station rotations three days a week for English Language Arts and Math. There will be three centers set up:  the primary center is a teacher center, with the teacher working with a small group of three to four students delivering a lesson and getting immediate feedback on those students’ needs; the second center is a review center where they’ll work in collaboration with other students; and the third incorporates technology with a responsive, web-based program that can assess each individual child’s work.

“We’re hopefully meeting the needs of all the kids who might be at varied places in their studies, and all the assessments will inform instruction. That helps us know which kids are at what level. The teacher has constant monitoring of that and it lets a child work at their own pace. If they get something wrong and they go back and can redo the lesson. It’s a new sense of empowerment for both because the staff is now empowered to really drill down and understand how that individual child is doing and the student is empowered to really go back and relearn the lesson if they need to or if they’ve mastered it to move forward,” Steele says.

Multi-Age Classrooms for Continuous Learning

In testing personalized learning last year, the school also started to strategically implement multi-age groupings, experimenting with grouping children by level rather than age.

“We did start to put our foot, the water and we liked it, for a couple of reasons. One, you get to spend two years with the same teacher. They get to know you well and you get to know them well. I’ll give you an example. Our fourth grade teacher was out for a day last year, so I covered the class. The kids told me everything–all the routines, procedures,” says Steele.

He saw something else. “When you turn that into multi-age group, that group then becomes a leader and mentors the next group. And when those kids come up and they know everything, then they become the mentor. So, so even at young levels–and we do it in K-1, 2-3, 4-5, and mixing some 6-7 classes together too–they get that chance to be both the leaders and the one year to catch up as they go.”

The smaller environment that’s Pre-K through Grade 8 already lends itself to multi-age connections even outside of the classroom. Our Lady of Fatima educators say that for their students, working with people of different abilities and interests presents an opportunity for kids to begin to take in the world that way.

“With the pre k through 8th grade model, it’s a very unique experience to be a child in this school because a big eighth grader knows your name,” says Benedett Lupoli. “I’ll never forget, my son started in the first grade and [one day] he had fallen on the playground. The 8th graders all came over and said, ‘Are you okay? Is everything all right?’ They all knew him. The older kids mentor the younger kids to begin with. So the multi age approach is just such a natural thing for this school in particular because we’ve always encouraged it and it’s one of the big benefits of our model.”

Fatima has a formalized mentor program, assigning kids in the middle school to younger children.

“When my son got to be in the 8th grade, he wanted to have a buddy in kindergarten that he would read to. And that was just how it was. The older kids were that way and it’s just the norm here. Even if we weren’t talking multi-age [classrooms], it’s one of the highlights of the school that is one of the biggest benefits to someone who comes here,” Benedett Lupoli says, adding that within each grade there are also very close connections.

“There’s just a lot of camaraderie and quite honestly, by the time they’re in 8th grade, these kids are like brothers and sisters.”

Our Lady of Fatima does accept children of other faiths–20% of the students are not Catholic, although Steele says that there is a religion class and Christian values are taught as part of the curriculum. In fact, the school’s motto is “Service Above Self.”

“We expect the kids to be contributing members of community,” says Steele.

The community is invited to the Our Lady of Fatima Academy launch on Friday, Aug. 30, with a Mass at 9 a.m., followed by an Academy ribbon-cutting ceremony at 9:50 a.m.; the school is located at 225 Danbury Road.