Plan brewing for new private school

John Tindall-Gibson, a consultant with Exemplary Education, talks to parents about starting a new private school in Naugatuck during an informational meeting May 9 at the Whittemore Library. –LUKE MARSHALL

NAUGATUCK — A group of parents is hoping to pick up where the borough’s only Catholic school is leaving off.

St. Francis-St. Hedwig School will close its doors at the end of this school year. The Archdiocese of Hartford announced plans to close the school in March, citing declining student enrollment and financial instability. The archdiocese said at the time that the decision was made by the St. Francis Church parish.

With the end of the school year rapidly approaching, the St. Francis School Foundation is working with Exemplary Education, a nonprofit educational foundation, to create a new school to follow in St. Francis-St. Hedwig’s footsteps.

“We have the experience and ability to organize and run the school. There is a great foundation there. It is just a matter of how you build on that foundation,” said John Tindall-Gibson, a consultant with Exemplary Education and a former superintendent of Naugatuck public schools, during an informational meeting last week to discuss the proposed school with parents.

Under the proposal, the education foundation would oversee the school and define the educational makeup of the school over a series of meetings with parents.

“We are going to go as fast as we can and plan as hard as we can to make this happen by September,” Tindall-Gibson said.

George Goens, a consultant with Exemplary Education, said a decision on opening the school would have to be made by the end of June in order to hire staff.

“The teachers aren’t going to drop out of the clouds. You have to go out and recruit people and hire them. You have to make a fiscal commitment to them to come here and teach,” Goens said.

Tindall-Gibson said the education foundation also needs to secure a location and is in talks to possibly lease the St. Francis-St. Hedwig School building, which is owned by the St. Francis Church Corporation.

Tindall-Gibson said there’s been no discussion of increasing tuition for the proposed school.

Tuition is $4,400 for Catholic students and $4,900 for non-Catholic students, and families with two or more children at the school pay a lower rate, according to St. Francis-St. Hedwig’s website.

Creating a private school from a closed Catholic school is not breaking new ground. St. Martin De Porres Academy in New Haven opened as a private school in 2007 in the same building as the former Sacred Heart St. Peter School, a Catholic school that was closed.

In order to make a viable private school, Tindall-Gibson said a minimum number of students is needed. He said the education foundation needs at least 50 students for next school year and is looking for 50 to 75 students.

“We need to grow that to 150 students. At 150 students we have a viable school,” Tindall-Gibson said.

There were 52 parents that attended last week’s meeting.

According to Chester Cornacchia, the parent of a sixth-grade student at St. Francis-St. Hedwig, there was interest from over 100 students as of late last week.

Nikki McLaughlin, a parent with two children enrolled at St. Francis-St. Hedwig, said she thought there was going to be a more solidified plan.

“I didn’t know there was not a plan in place,” McLaughlin said after the meeting. “But I am kind of optimistic now.”

McLaughlin wasn’t sure if she was going to sign her children up for the proposed school, saying she would discuss it with her husband.

Jennifer Wilmot, who has five children at St. Francis-St. Hedwig and one who recently graduated, was ready to sign up after the meeting.

Wilmot pointed to St. Martin De Porres Academy as an example of what the proposed new school could become.

“[The students] were happy. There was no bullying. That’s what I am looking forward to with this one,” Wilmot said. “I was thinking of homeschooling them but I want them to have other kids to be with. This new school is my choice.”

St. Francis-St. Hedwig Principal John Alfone sent a message to parents the day of the meeting stating the school has no affiliation with the proposed new school or the informational meeting.

“There is also no involvement by St. Francis of Assisi Parish or the Office of Education, Evangelization, and Catechesis (OEEC) of the Archdiocese of Hartford. Parents of St. Francis-St. Hedwig School have been encouraged to enroll their children in other established Catholic schools in the region, and to date over 75 students are enrolled in these schools,” reads the message, which was emailed to the Citizen’s News by Archdiocese of Hartford Director of Communications Maria Zone.

Even though the proposed new school might seem like a risk, Cornacchia said parents are also taking a chance by continuing to send their children to Catholic schools.

“There is no guarantee, other than public education, that any of the schools we have chosen as a backup right now or as first choice will be open next year or the year after,” Cornacchia said. “They shut us down in two and a half months without even a fight. Without a chance.”