Academy looks to fill void after closing of Catholic school

Families associated with the former St. Francis-St. Hedwig School in Naugatuck along with, from left, Holy Cross High School interim President Paul Geise, Exemplary Education President John Tindall-Gibson and Post University Director of Strategic Partnerships Christina Agvent announce plans for a new middle school academy at Holy Cross in Waterbury on Aug. 16. -STEVEN VALENTI/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

WATERBURY — For the first time in over 100 years, parochial school students won’t be heading back to school in Naugatuck, and now some local families are pinning their hopes on an upstart academy.

The Archdiocese of Hartford closed St. Francis-St. Hedwig School — the last Catholic school left in Naugatuck — at the end of the 2017-18 school year, citing declining student enrollment and financial issues.

A group of parents, working with the St. Francis School Foundation and Exemplary Education, Inc., a nonprofit educational foundation, came together to try and create a new school in Naugatuck to follow in St. Francis-St. Hedwig’s footsteps. Plans for a new school in Naugatuck never came to fruition. However, the group’s effort led to the creation of Frontiers Academy.

The academy is slated to be a sixth-through-eighth-grade middle school program run at Holy Cross High School in Waterbury. It will be run in collaboration with Post University, Holy Cross High School and Exemplary Education.

The program is pitched as a new model for providing middle school students with individualized educational programs for families seeking an alternative to existing public and private school options. Classes are scheduled to begin Sept. 4.

Holy Cross is providing the program’s classroom space. Post, through its High School Academy, will provide students with a glimpse of post-secondary school offerings.

“Here’s the opportunity where middle school and higher education can be joined,” said Paul Geise, Holy Cross’ interim president, as the plans for the academy were announced Aug. 16 at Holy Cross.

Geise said the idea behind the program is to allow students a chance to accelerate their learning based on their competencies.

Tuition for the program begins at $4,000 per student. Few other details, including those about potential staff, were available about the program last week, except that founders plan to cap enrollment at roughly 20 students per grade level and say the curriculum will be based on problem solving, collaboration and communication.

Because the program will be housed at Holy Cross, it will have a faith-based environmental that emphasizes ethics and morals, its founders maintained.

John Tindall-Gibson, former Naugatuck Public Schools superintendent and current consultant with Exemplary Education, which is planning the school, said one of its goals is to become a model for “how do we do things differently?”

Tindall-Gibson said the program will follow a national model of student-centered learning.

“The coursework is going to be very exciting and stimulating,” he said.

As the program launches, organizers are working toward its official accreditation. Its staffing needs will be determined based on enrollment.

Naugatuck resident Chester Cornacchia, whose children attended St. Francis-St. Hedwig and whose son will attend the academy as a seventh-grader, helped spearhead the effort to create the academy. He said they looked for locations in Naugatuck for the academy and discussed using the former St. Francis-St. Hedwig School building on Church Street, but the archdiocese didn’t agree to it.

Maria Zone, director of communications for the archdiocese, wasn’t available for comment as of press time.

Cornacchia said it’s unfortunate that starting the academy in Waterbury leaves Naugatuck without a parochial school.

Cornacchia said he doesn’t believe a large recruitment effort is going to be necessary to get the program underway, with younger siblings of current Holy Cross students and families recently displaced by St. Francis-St. Hedwig’s closure as potential recruits.

Naugatuck resident Jamie Marcella plans to send her eldest son, who attended St. Francis-St. Hedwig, to the academy for sixth grade.

“I think it is a fantastic opportunity to have partnership with Holy Cross and Post. It will open doors for not just my children, but all children that attend. They will have opportunities they may not have ordinarily had,” Marcella said.

Marcella said Holy Cross is about the same distance from her house as the St. Francis-St. Hedwig School building.

The academy has the support of the St. Francis School Foundation, as well.

“Some of our students that were looking for a new school to go to, some of them will attend here we believe. This is all part of our effort to keep the legacy of St. Francis-St. Hedwig School going,” said Kevin McSherry, president of the foundation.

The foundation hasn’t committed any money to the academy yet, but McSherry said the foundation plans to talk with Post, Holy Cross and Exemplary Education to see how it can support the academy.

“We have funds that are designated specifically for scholarships. We also have funds we can maybe assist in making some capital improvements to the program and help make it a great success,” McSherry said.

Although the academy doesn’t have a presence in Naugatuck, that could change in the future.

Tindall-Gibson said the academy is considering creating a “design lab” in the borough. The lab would allow students from the academy, and other surrounding schools, to work on large-scale projects, he said.

In the meantime, parents like Marcella are going to try to reap the benefits that an academy aligned with a high school and university has over a traditional school.

“I think a program like this is a better fit for my family,” Marcella said.

Those interested in learning more about the program can call Tindall-Gibson at 860-480-1431.

Michael Gagne of the Republican-American contributed to this article.