Just a few days ago, Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Academy issued an urgent call for help, asking the Wilton community to help it make up a $140,000 deficit in one week–or else the school would be forced to close its doors for good. The community answered that last-minute plea for financial assistance faster than officials could have hoped. Friday evening, school representatives announced to students’ families during a Zoom Community Meeting that they’d reached–and surpassed–their goal and will be able to reopen for the 2020-2021 school year after all.

“We are grateful to the entire community,” said Kevin Vallerie, president of the school’s board, in a press release. “People really came together from near and far to support our effort. We are very pleased to inform the Diocese of Bridgeport of this result.”

The school exceeded its fundraising goal of $141,000 within just a few days of the initial plea for help. Officials originally had set June 25 as the date by which they needed to raise the money in order to balance the school’s budget–something that failed to happen when recruitment and fundraising efforts fell short as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We had a balanced budget in 2020 and wanted to have enough funds available for 2021. The COVID-19 hit us on all areas–fundraising and recruitment. We had difficulty trying to reorganize our selves for 2020-2021,” Steele explained.

Now that those very critical funds have been secured through this emergency stop-gap, they are guaranteeing parents they will have a balanced budget going into the school’s next fiscal year.

But it wasn’t only the immediate school community that came out to support the Wilton institution in its time of need.

“Everyone donated,” OLFCA principal Stanley Steele said. “We had GoFundMe, we had checks being dropped off at the school or parish, we had Venmo and we had PayPal. This afternoon we had over 250 different people [who] had donated to one of those formats… The whole gamut–teachers, parents, past teachers, alumni, parents, community members.”

The support in the school’s time of need was overwhelming, something Steele says is reminiscent of OLFCA’s own motto:  Service above self.

“This time the community gave to us,” Steele said.

“[It’s] a really impressive, feel-good story of the greater community coming together to keep our school going,” he added.

With the announcement, school leadership confirmed plans to hold in-person classes for the 2020-21 school year–full-time, five days a week, and following COVID guidelines. Steele said this decision is possible because the school maintains small class sizes that allow for social distancing but also leave room for more enrollment.

“Our small class sizes are what makes that plan [to return to in-person learning] possible,” Steele said in the release. “Currently, the school has room for 31 new students to enroll while still being COVID-compliant for our Pre K-3 to 8th grade Personalized Approach to Learning program.”

This news comes on the heels of the school’s switch last year to the academy model. The move established more independence from Diocesean oversight for the school–both in management and finances. Steele reaffirmed his confidence in the new system and praised the work of the Board, which had more control over the school in the academy style.

“I absolutely believe the academy model was critical,” Steele said. “Our board works tirelessly and brought a lot of skills to the table to make this work.”

He added that having the academy model will also help the school adjust its procedures and policies to adapt to an unknown future and to make sure the safety of the students and staff is always prioritized.

Of course, that independence puts more pressure on school officials to keep enrollment strong–especially when it comes to bringing in tuition that supports the bottom line. That will be even harder to do when maintaining safety means that enrollment will be capped at a lower amount, even with room still remaining for more students to enroll.

Steele, however, is optimistic that student enrollment will rise as the state continues reopening, especially knowing that current families have been satisfied with how the school adjusted quickly when the pandemic first hit.

“It was an extremely difficult last three months, but I think the teachers did a fantastic job. I think our parents appreciate what their kids experience through distanced learning at our school,” Steele said.

He’s certainly relieved to be able to move forward, knowing the fundraising goal was achieved.

“Just thank you to everyone for their support,” Steele said. “Even their prayers. We appreciate it when support helps us reach and exceed our goals.”