With the 2021-2022 school year now ended, the doors of our Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Academy (OLFCA) have closed — but this time it’s not just temporarily for summer vacation.
Before the school year’s end, with a significant enrollment deficit projected for next year, OLFCA embarked on an intense enrollment drive in June that included several open house sessions, tuition incentives and other outreach efforts. Ultimately, the effort fell short of the required minimum student population for the pre-K through eighth-grade school.
A June 29 letter from the OLFCA Board of Directors informed parents of its decision.
“It is with tremendous regret that Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Academy will not reopen in the fall,” the letter read.
“We had a deadline of today, June 29, 2022, to reach a minimum enrollment of 95 students and a balanced budget to have the ability to open next year. Regrettably, even with the immense push of the OLFCA Initiative Committee recruitment efforts, we were not able to meet this requirement.”
GOOD Morning Wilton attempted to obtain comment from several OLFCA leaders, including the president of OLFCA’s School Board, Kevin Vallerie — who declined to comment on the basis that the Board has been dissolved and he did not feel he had the authority to speak — and school principal Mary Ann Fleming, who has not yet responded to GMW‘s call to her office on Friday morning, July 1. (GMW will update this story if we receive a response.)
Fleming became the school’s principal last September, following the departure of former principal Stanley Steele.
Steele governed the school through similar enrollment challenges and financial pressures at the end of his tenure, only narrowly avoiding closure at that time thanks in part to an influx of students in the tumultuous COVID environment.
That influx appears to have been short-lived. As the Board’s strategic planner Michael Fleming previously told GMW, at least some of those students returned to their previous schools once their learning environments returned to normal.
“Efforts Were Really Paying Off”
A key component of the school’s June enrollment drive included a significant tuition incentive program offered by Wilton residents Keith and Amy Heffernan.
GMW spoke with Keith Heffernan after the June 29 announcement.
“It’s very upsetting and disheartening,” Heffernan said. “There’s just so much love for the school in this community.”
Heffernan repeatedly praised the work of the parent-driven enrollment effort and indicated it had quite a bit of momentum.
“It was really incredible the effort the Fatima parents put in to try to save the school,” Heffernan said. “Those efforts were really paying off. It was amazing how many new enrollments came in over the last couple weeks, so the decision was very upsetting.”
Wilton’s Steve Bonafide, whose two children attended OLFCA over the past 15 years, also reported that the enrollment goal was very nearly reached.
“It’s frustrating… to get that close on what was a very tall task was just really incredible,” Bonafide said.
Other sources familiar with the school’s enrollment drive also reported they came very close to meeting the goal. Most believed the school was likely to reach the goal if the enrollment drive was extended.
Among them was Wilton’s Heather Hubbard, whose daughter has been a student at OLFCA for the past two years.
Hubbard was an integral member of the enrollment initiative committee, which she described as having about a dozen very active members, including some who held board positions.
Hubbard was particularly frustrated with what she saw as a lack of transparency from the administration and the diocese in the process, even questioning whether the decision to close had been largely pre-determined.
“I’m not sure everybody knows all the pieces,” Hubbard said. “That’s what’s so disheartening. It feels to some extent like there was some lack of transparency. What’s frustrating for a lot of us is why let us go through all that [enrollment effort]? Why lead us to believe that if we could show a notable increase in enrollment numbers — which I believe had we been allowed to continue, there’s no question we would have met or exceeded [the goal].”
Hubbard said, “We were so close, it really came down to how you counted” the intent to return reported by some families.
Hubbard also explained why this enrollment push was different from OLFCA’s previous efforts, including a recognition of the need for more strategic planning.
“We wouldn’t be out of the woods just by hitting the enrollment number,” Hubbard said. “But we had a strong and solid vision, and very strong understanding that if we got past this milestone we would flesh out medium- and long-range planning, fundraising strategies and capital campaigning strategies.”
“It was really quite something to see this committee’s [results] materialize the way they did,” she said, attributing the success to “new awareness and engagement tactics” such as paid media, which had not previously been employed.
“This committee had a lot of really refreshing, new, revitalizing ways to look at how we plan strategically for the school,” Hubbard said.
While acknowledging those innovative approaches had not been implemented before the hard-and-fast June 29 deadline for enrollments, Hubbard felt more consideration should have been given to the committee’s new direction and demonstrable success over the past few weeks.
“[The committee] put a lot of work into it, and we felt very dismissed when it finally got to the decision,” Hubbard said.
Not Giving Up
Frustrated parents and loyal alumni families are now making a grass-roots effort as a final appeal to the diocese. Under the name of OLFCA, a small group of alumni and parents posted a change.org petition on July 1, seeking 500 signatures by July 5 in order “to keep the doors open or at a minimum, be heard by the Diocese of Bridgeport”.
The petition includes some information that GMW has been unable to verify, such as the assertion that the school only needed two more students to meet the enrollment goal, and that “most” of the newly enrolled students were from Wilton (a reversal of previous trends). The petition states:
“It was announced less than six weeks ago that unless the school could reach a certain amount of students, by June 29, 2022, they would close the school. Short of [two] new enrollments, the diocese unmercifully failed to look at new enrollment statistics or hear with empathy, compassion, or kindness from the board that primarily most of the newly enrolled students were coming from the town of Wilton, when in the past, this wasn’t always the case. Aware that a more contemporary business model was needed to move the school forward, specific focus was given in these efforts to weave in new methods, models, and approaches to not only enrollment, but future fundraising, capital campaigns and sustainability so that a true vision of a revitalized Fatima could be achieved — this, along with the enrollment efforts, was dismissed without consideration. Parents and students worked tirelessly to save the school, for which we feel there was a total lack of empathy.”
The Diocese Response
GMW reached out to the Bridgeport Diocese about the decision. Brian Wallace, director of communications for the diocese, responded to questions via email but deflected the decision back to the OLFCA Board of Directors.
[Editor’s note: Contrary to the perception that the church operates the school, OLFCA has operated under an academy model, governed by a board of directors, since 2019. Under the academy model, OLFCA is “a freestanding, independent legal entity and must be a financially self-sufficient institution. The Board is responsible for the Academy’s governance and financial management, with oversight from the Diocese,” according to the school’s website.]
“The decision to close was a difficult one for the board and arrived at after repeated efforts to build enrollment and balance the budget,” Wallace wrote. “While the parents and committee members put their hearts and souls into the effort and approached it with great creativity and generosity, the shortfall in enrollment not only led to a significant projected budget deficit but also would have impacted the quality of education.”
Wallace put the decision in the context of previous enrollment struggles and suggested there was no alternative.
“After a multi-year struggle, the school was simply unable to sustain operations,” he wrote. “The closing of any of our schools is [the] last thing the diocese wants to see. Despite outstanding efforts and personal commitment by all involved, the difficult decision had to be made.”
It is unclear what will happen to the school building, located at 225 Danbury Rd. Wallace noted the property is owned by the parish, Our Lady of Fatima Church, which is next door to the school property. Wallace said he was not aware of any immediate plans for the school building.
Father Reginald Norman, the church pastor, told GMW the building will continue to be used for the religious education program of the parish, but no other decisions have been made yet.
“Our finance committee will need to discuss it,” Fr. Norman wrote in an email.
Sadness and Loss
Sadness and disbelief filled the Fatima community.
“[We’re] so sad and so disappointed at the news, because it’s just a very, very special place,” Bonafide said. “It’s the combination of elite, top-notch academics that’s second to none, that combined beautifully with developing the kids as people — their character, stressing respect and service to others.”
“It’s so hard to believe,” Bonafide added. “This news is extremely sad, that other kids and families are not going to be able to experience what the Fatima family is all about.”
Bonafide’s wife, Tracy Bonafide, echoed the point.
“Besides the star academics, the children there just learned to be good, kind people — serving others, becoming mentors to the younger children,” she said. “You just can’t find that anywhere else.”
The sense of loss that many members of the community are feeling was also evident in the Board’s June 29 letter to parents.
“We are deeply saddened by the reality of OLFCA closing — saddened for our own families and for future families who will never come to know the Our Lady of Fatima family. Many of us have been associated with this wonderful school for a decade or more, and some for much, much longer.”
The Board offered its final thanks to the community.
“Thank you to everyone who has been a part of this family, especially those who have worked or volunteered to provide an excellent Catholic education for our young people.”