Lisa Nicolari gives a tour of the PROUD Academy's facilities at the Boys & Girls Club of the Lower Naugatuck Valley on July 19, 2023. Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

When Patty Nicolari came out in the spring of 1997, she was a teacher at Ansonia High School. She remembers students yelling slurs at her, vandalizing her car, leaving nasty notes on her desk and teachers whispering among themselves.

Nearly 30 years later, many members of the LGBTQ+ community, like Charlie Wills, a 12-year-old transgender boy from New York City, still experience similar harassment and bullying in schools. He’s often excluded by other students from activities at school, misgendered, laughed and stared at or called names, his mother Tanya said.

It’s because of experiences like Charlie’s that Nicolari decided it was time to create a safe haven in her hometown of Ansonia with PROUD Academy, a private school geared toward LGBTQ+ students and their allies. Nicolari is hopeful the school will open this fall.

“We don’t have time to wait. These kids are killing themselves. They’re cutting. They’re dropping out of school. They’re in trauma treatment,” Nicolari said. “We spend millions and millions on the suicide prevention hotline, and so many of these kids call because school is a horrible place for them. … I feel like PROUD Academy is an opportunity to be proactive instead of reactive.” 

According to data from The Trevor Project, 52% of LGBTQ middle or high school students have reported being bullied. Transgender and nonbinary students are bullied at higher rates compared to cisgender LGBTQ students. These same students are three times more likely to attempt suicide. 

The school will be located at the Ansonia Boys & Girls Club and will start by serving seventh and eighth graders in its first year and expand each year up to 12th grade. Nicolari said over 50 people have expressed interest across the country and about 15 students have applied already.

She said they chose to start with seventh and eighth graders because “the age is very challenging for students in general and it’s an age where students have a pretty good understanding of who they are and sometimes they’re not taken seriously because they’re in middle school.

“By creating a safe space for students where they will be valued and respected for who they are, that age group seemed to make the most sense,” Nicolari added.

PROUD Academy has partnered with four other schools across the country that are LGBTQ-affirming, including Harvey Milk High School in New York City, Albert Einstein Academy in Ohio, the Alliance School in Wisconsin and Magic City Acceptance Academy in Alabama. The schools network and share guidance and protocols when needed, according to the academy’s website.

PROUD Academy would also be the first LGBTQ+ private school in New England, Nicolari said.

Tanya Wills came across PROUD Academy after Charlie told her he didn’t want to go back to his school for his eighth grade year. 

“[The school had] a faculty that was well meaning but unable to protect him from bullying because of his LGBTQ+ status. I think that the school where my child went, everybody says that they are accepting and the school stands for social acceptance, but they didn’t really have the tools that they needed to protect queer kids,” Wills said. “My child was really becoming withdrawn and depressed. … [He] said, ‘I don’t want to go back and be with those kids anymore. I can’t do it.’ So I started just Googling.”

The Wills family purchased a house in New Milford last year and was already planning to relocate there full time in 2024. However, they’re moving in a year early for Charlie to attend PROUD Academy and they expect to be settled in by August. 

For students who are unable to relocate, Nicolari said she hopes the school will be able to expand to offer a boarding option in a few years.

PROUD Academy will cost $19,900 a year to attend, a price tag that’s slightly below the national average of $23,839 for a private K-12 education. The school is also trying to solicit donations to help start scholarship funds “to offset tuition for those socioeconomically challenged,” Nicolari added.

Since the academy will be a private school, it doesn’t require an approval from the state’s Department of Education in order to operate and does not receive public funds, although in some cases it could work with a public school system to obtain contracts for services.

“Under the federal title programs there is a provision called equitable services where, based on a calculation, a certain amount of funds are reserved to fund eligible activities for private schools,” said Eric Scoville, a spokesperson from the state’s education department. “The funds are not given to the private school, but rather the public school district may enter into contracts for eligible services on behalf of the private school or purchase items like technology on behalf of the private school.”

In terms of its curriculum, Nicolari called it “inclusive,” with an emphasis on the history of the LGBTQ+ community and the history of race and racism.

“These will be interwoven into our everyday reading and writing and arithmetic and all of that. We also believe in the Socratic Method of teaching where you present an idea to students and they have to do some research on it and then debate it back and forth,” Nicolari said.

Wills added how that type of learning is important for LGBTQ+ students and their confidence.

“I think at PROUD Academy, there’s going to be a deeper understanding of where the oppression comes from, and I think that there’s going to be pride that comes from understanding and being able to unpack the prejudice that is placed upon you,” Wills said.

Jessika Harkay is CT Mirror’s Education Reporter, covering the K-12 achievement gap, education funding, curriculum, mental health, school safety, inequity and other education topics. Jessika's experience includes roles as a breaking news reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Hartford Courant. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Baylor University.