BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — It was once the landmark Singer Sewing Machine factory, and it was the first site of Housatonic Community College (HCC) back in the 1960s.
These days, parts of the sprawling complex at 510 Barnum Ave. have morphed into an innovative incubator for Bridgeport charter schools, including its current resident, Great Oaks Charter School.
Tucked amid the custom furniture businesses and gourmet bakeries that form the surprising new face of Bridgeport industry at the old plant, the school is facing the achievement gap head on with a forward-thinking program that keeps children’s needs in the forefront.
“The thing that makes this school unique is the tutorial concept,” said Monica Maccera Filppu, principal of the school, a second home to 325 students in grades 6 to 8.
Under the system, students are taught at their normal grade level for most of the extended day. They also received two hour-long tutorial sessions at which they’re taught at their own level.
The average student coming in to Great Oaks’ sixth grade is at a third grade level, Maccera said.
Great Oaks — which has three other locations in New York, New Jersey and Delaware — believes that focused time in small groups is the best way to bring a child up to grade level, she said.
Great Oaks is the third charter school to use the Barnum Avenue site, which was sectioned off into classrooms back in the HCC days. New Beginnings Family Academy, now on Garden Street, was the first, followed by Park City Prep, which is now on State Street.
In fall 2018, Great Oaks expects to move to the new Cherry Street Lofts across town, once the old American Gramophone factory on the site is renovated for new use.
Until then, Maccera said she’s focusing on the families who won coveted spots at Great Oaks through a lottery. In 2014, when the school opened, it had 400 applications for just 125 spots, she said.
She said she thinks a number of factors feed into the school’s success in attracting city children.
“I’m a mom. I always ask myself that,” she said, walking down the hall, stopping to say hello to passing students. “I think some have had bad experiences with the Bridgeport Public Schools where they haven’t had their needs met.”
Great Oaks relies on 16 teachers and about 60 tutors, many from Americorps, to meet the children where they are and work from there. All staff are encouraged to get to know the students and their unique challenges and triumphs.
“We have high expectations, but I do think that it comes down to relationships,” Maccera said. “I’m proudest of the way adults speak to kids in this building. We tend to use the love and logic framework.”