By Kate Ramunni
NORTH HAVEN – A town couple’s plans to open the Slate School – a private elementary school on 23 acres on Mansfield Drive – has some eagerly awaiting the opportunity to enroll their children in the environmentally-focused program and others working to make sure the project never happens.
“This is a highly controversial topic in North Haven – there are passionate opinions on both sides,” said First Selectman Michael Freda, who has both heard from residents praising the plans and attended meetings where residents have spoken against the school.
“I have met with both sides,” Freda said. “We are receiving via email a lot of support with the school, but I also met with the Blue HIlls Neighborhood Association, which is vehemently opposed to it.”
The school’s focus will very much be on nature and will feature very small class sizes, said Jennifer Clarke, who with her husband Alex are working on creating the facility. The 25-acre site had a house on it that was taken down, and the school will be built on its foundation, Clarke said.
The driveway takes up about an acre, she said, and the school will sit on another acre, so that will leave 23 of the 25 acres as open space to be used as an “open classroom.”
“Slate School is a small, nature-based kindergarten through sixth grade elementary school and nature conservatory that we are working to create at 124 Mansfield Road,” Jennifer Clarke said.
Clarke taught environmental science and history to high school students and now runs the global health non-profit Unite for Sight that works to bring vision services to underserved areas. “Now I’ve shifted a bit, but education is infused in everything – it’s a passion.”
Initially – they are hoping in the fall of 2018 – the school will kick off the school year with two 10-student classes in kindergarten and first grade, she said. “As the first-graders become second-graders and then become third-graders, eventually we get to a total of about 70 students in 2023 for K-6,” she said. “The school will both conserve and preserve the property and also create a wonderful nature-based learning environment for the children.”
Class size will remain at 10 children per grade for the immediate future, Clarke said. “Part of the mission and vision for the school is to ensure that it is small and intimate, so we will be having each class with 10 kids and a teacher and an assistant teacher,” she said. “It will be a 5:1 student-teacher ratio so it will be very, very small.”
Competition for those seats is expected to be fierce, as more people learn about the school and express interest in sending their children there. But there won’t be any entrance exam the prospective students will have to pass to get in, Clarke said.
“It will be self-selected because it’s a unique type of school,” she said. “The plan is to have an admissions process that is based on play. The elementary education director and the teachers will be able to watch the kids playing and make sure they are a right fit for the school and the environment. It will be a play-based process.”
Once enrolled, the students will be studying the same subjects their grade-appropriate public school counterparts are studying, she said, including English, Math and Science.
“All of the children will be learning what is age-appropriate and grade-level appropriate that they would be learning in any school, whether it be a traditional or independent school, but doing things in a unique way where nature is really infused into the curriculum,” Clarke said. “We will be bringing in some best practises from some models we find to be particularly inspiring, like Walforf schools that are focused on imagination and nature, and bring in the great practices that they have adopted.
“But they will be learning the typical English, Math and History, just in a very creative and inquiry-based process,” she said.
Because it will be an independent school, they don’t have to follow the certification regulations for teachers that public schools must, she said. But the teachers they hire will be well-qualified to teach, she said.
“I’m imagining we will have a variety of different types of teachers, and especially with training in early childhood education – that will be one of the key components,” she said, “and teachers who have a particular passion for nature-based learning and inquiry-based learning as well.”
There won’t be any standardized testing, Clark said. “Instead, because there will be such small classes, the teachers will be able to work very closely with the students and have that as their assessment process instead of a testing process.”
As an independent school, they will be required only to submit attendance records to the state, Clarke said. The state doesn’t accredit independent schools, but there is an accreditation process available from a private organization that evaluated independent schools once they have been operating for four years, she said.
“We will be working towards that,” she said, “but it’s at the four-year in existence mark that a private school can be accredited.”
Part of the mission of the school is to make sure it’s financially accessible and affordable, Clarke said. “We will be adopting a sliding scale process that is based on family income that is similar to what other schools do,” she said.
The Clark’s haven’t officially bought the property yet – that depends on the success of the land use permit process. “We are under contract and contingent on the P&Z approvals, so we are working on that,” she said.
“How it works in government is that both sides get to present and then it gets to the regulatory bodies – Inland Wetlands and Planning and Zoning. They have final decision on this project,” Freda said.
The town tried to purchase property as open space, Freda said, but couldn’t afford the price tag. “Two blue book appraisals both came in at $685,000, which was all the town could offer,” he said. “It was rejected because that was lower than what the property owner was able to sell it for.”
Alexander and Jennifer Clark are reportedly contracted to pay $3 million for the 25-acre site. But at both neighborhood meetings and town meetings, they have heard from residents who say the school does not fit in the residential area.
We completely understand that people have concerns, so we have been spending so much time doing outreach in the neighborhood and throughout the town,” Jennifer Clarke said. “Over the past few months we have been speaking with hundreds of North Haven residents and hearing their questions and concerns, and we have reached out to more than 500 of the closest neighbors. It’s been such a joy meeting with them.”