Courtesy of Patricia Nicolari

After facing discrimination and derogatory comments about her sexuality over her three decades of teaching, Patricia Nicolari is realizing a dream she has had for 14 years: opening a school that caters specifically to the needs of LGBTQ+ students.

With plans to enroll roughly 150 7th to 10th graders in the upcoming 2023-2024 school year, the New Haven-based PROUD Academy is designed to provide a safe haven from bullying and discrimination  for LGBTQ+ youth. According to a 2021 study by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, more than 80 percent of LGBTQ+ students between the ages of 13 and 21 report feeling unsafe at their schools. 

“Coming out changed everything, and I realized what a difference it makes to not pretend to be anybody anymore,” Nicolari told the News. “I started going across the country putting on workshops for teachers to create safe spaces for students. Eventually, I thought I need to do this for students so that they don’t waste as much time as I did, so this school is a place that empowers them to be authentic and be who they are.” 

While the private school is specifically geared towards the needs of LGBTQ+ students, it is also open to cisgender and heterosexual students who wish to attend the academy. PROUD has garnered national and international press and activist attention after its launch announcement at Southern Connecticut State University last week. PROUD would be the fifth school of its kind in the nation. 

PROUD’s tuition is currently estimated to be roughly between $30,000-40,000 per year with a need-based financial aid policy based on the federal aid system. However, in the long term, Nicolari hopes to make the school free to all of those who want to attend. 

The school is still working to raise the funds necessary to open in September. Barbara Duncan, the academy’s board director, told the News that keeping the school open for its first three years will require roughly $5 million dollars. PROUD currently does not receive any federal or state funding, but school leadership is in the process of asking for donations to enable the school to meet the financial needs of all students. 

“We’ve just really been connecting to the community,” Duncan told the News. “It’s just amazing that this initiative is a grassroots effort. And it’s just starting to percolate to reality.”

PROUD is currently negotiating to buy the old Riverside Academy on Ella T. Grasso Blvd. in the Hill neighborhood. Nicolari told the News that the site suits the needs of PROUD perfectly, with a large indoor space as well as an outdoor space that borders the West River. 

Moreover, Nicolari added that choosing New Haven as PROUD’s location was deliberate since the academy will be located near both Yale and Southern Connecticut State University. PROUD is actively working with the gender and emotional learning centers at Yale to augment their current curriculum plans, and PROUD students will be able to dual-enroll for college classes at SCSU. 

“Patty who had a vision for this school and has been putting in the work and recruiting so many like minded partners — like the folks here at Southern — to make it a reality,” state treasurer Erick Russell, who is the first openly gay Black person to serve in statewide office in the U.S., wrote to the News. “Being yourself sounds so easy but can be so difficult for LGBTQ+ kids. That’s why the PROUD Academy is so important, and the work it’s doing is so impactful. Every kid deserves to feel accepted, safe and totally themselves.”

A safe haven for transgender and nonbinary students 

The largest group of students who have expressed interest in PROUD Academy so far are transgender and nonbinary students. 

Fairfield resident Tiffanie Wong submitted an application for her nonbinary child, Maddie, who is currently in seventh grade. Wong told the News that her child has lived through bullying and harassment at their middle school because of their gender identity. 

“It’s gotten to a point where they’re no longer comfortable in school, and we’ve been having a lot of issues trying to get them to go to school because of how traumatic it has been,” Wong said. “They were really excited to hear about PROUD because it’s a place where they feel like they wouldn’t be different, which is a huge thing because no one wants to be different in middle school.”

Wong is one of roughly 50 parents who have reached out already for their students to be enrolled, including two out-of-state families who have said they will relocate to Connecticut so that their child feels more safe. 

Within the last year, school officials and state legislators across the nation have worked to limit discussion around and end recognition of transgender and nonbinary students. Connecticut Republicans introduced a bill on Jan. 20 calling on school officials to only recognize students by their biological sex. Roughly 100 pieces of legislation similar to this Connecticut bill have been introduced in the last year across the nation, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. 

“The anti-trans sentiment that we have seen across the country might explain the national attention and outreach from families across the country we have received since announcing last week,” Nicolari told the News. 

Staff will be trained to better understand transgender and nonbinary students so that they can provide them with the support necessary. Nicolari told the News that she has already received dozens of applications from teachers who hope to create a more nurturing environment for LGBTQ+ students. 

To better support transgender and nonbinary students, PROUD will also have a gender-affirming closet where transgender and nonbinary students can change into clothes that suit how they identify.

Nicolari said that PROUD will also emphasize social-emotional learning with daily surveys and mental health check-ins with students so that teachers and staff can identify issues quickly and help students address them. 

When PROUD opens, it will join the national LGBTQ+ ally network of schools. All five schools in the network have similar founding missions. New York City’s Harvey Milk School, founded in 1985, was the first school created with a focus on LGBTQ+ students, with three others following in Alabama, Wisconsin and Ohio. 

“I was the first Black lawyer at a big law firm in Connecticut,” PROUD member John Rose told the News. “It’s been so heartening to see how hard Patty is working to protect and lift up LGBTQ+ and Trans kids and help them fight against discrimination. PROUD is going to thrive when it opens.” 

The Riverside Academy is located at 560 Ella T Grasso Blvd.

Yash Roy covered City Hall and State Politics for the News. He also served as a Production & Design editor, and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion chair for the News. Originally from Princeton, New Jersey, he is a '25 in Timothy Dwight College majoring in Global Affairs.