Bridgeport — For the nearly one year Naoko Katsuura, 16, of Japan, has attended Bridgeport International Academy, she has lived with a host family that happens to be school directors Hugh and Nora Spurgin.
Last week, the sophomore moved into a dorm that this month received state approval. "I'm really excited," said Katsuura, using the English she acquired in the program.
The State Board of Education recently voted unanimously to grant a certificate of exemption to the academy to run a residential facility. Until now, the school ran on a day-school license.
Started in 1997 as New Eden Academy, the school got $2 million in start-up funds and staffing from the Unification Church, which is headed by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
Six years ago, it reincorporated, changing its mission and name. As Bridgeport International Academy, it is a nondenominational, nonsectarian college preparatory school that teaches universal values, not Unification doctrine, according to Hugh Spurgin.
"It is common knowledge among our parents, students, teachers, staff, and others that many of our students and teachers have been inspired by the vision and ideas of the Unification movement," Spurgin added.
"Although we do not hide our early history, we do not mention that complex and extensive history in our introductory literature, since it is irrelevant as to who we are today," he added.
Alan Taylor, chairman of the board, said he wasn't aware of the school's early ties with the Unification Church and didn't think it mattered.
"Everyone has a right to have their schools. We're not going to get in the business of deciding that some religious affiliations are acceptable and others aren't," he said.
Before the approval, the school was visited by a committee that was headed by Laura L. Anastasio, an attorney in the division of legal and governmental affairs at the state Department of Education.
Anastasio said the school was nonsectarian in nature, with students from a wide range of backgrounds and nationalities.
Her report commended the staff at the school for providing a nurturing and supportive learning environment.
BIA had a state license to run a day school through June of this year. The new boarding school permit lasts a year. The school is currently seeking New England Association of Schools and Colleges accreditation. If it gets the NEASC nod, it will not need another state exemption.
"Some students have been waiting all year for this. Some began moving their stuff in" the night approval was granted, said Spurgin.
The new dormitory, "Seaview House," is located on Waldemere Avenue, near the Hubbell Gymnasium and across from Seaside Park. The renovated three-story building will house boys on one floor, girls on another, with a family that will serve as resident life coordinators on the first floor.
Zoned for up to 20 students, the dorm will house a dozen of the school's 61 students to start.
In addition to a growing number of international students, the school also has students who commute from Bridgeport, Stratford, Milford and Norwalk.
According to Nora Spurgin, the school's principal, about three-quarters of the student body and much of the staff are affiliated with the church, though the school is open to students of all faiths.
Spurgin said the school remains attractive to church families because they know their children will be exposed to a very moral environment, free from social pressures.
There is a strict code of conduct at the school that bars alcohol, smoking, drugs, inappropriate dress or romantic relationships.
Many students have parents who work at UB. Others come from families looking for an alternative to the city school system. Some are international students hoping to gain English skills before applying to an American college.
Abby Asamoah, 16, was sent to the school by parents who come from Ghana but who raised their daughter in Japan.
Here just six months, she speaks almost accent-free English, although Japanese is her native language.
"I like the school," said Asamoah, who lives with an aunt in Bridgeport. Her parents are still in Japan and are not members of the Unification Church. Asamoah was surprised to learn the school was started by the church, but was not bothered by it. "They don't push it on you," she said.
Lucas Tecun, 15, whose family does belong to the church, called it no big deal.
"I am really honest about what happens in our religion. If anyone has questions, I'm happy to answer and clear things up," he said.
He said the school does not have any religion classes, just character-education lessons during homeroom.
Christinya Steamberry, Bridgeport, 15, a freshman, called it a "cool" school.
"I never been to a school like this before. There's so many international people here," she said, offering up a Japanese phrase she'd recently picked up. Steamberry's mom found the school on the Internet.
"The church affiliation thing is not a problem with any of us here. I'm a Christian myself," she said.
"Here I can be myself completely," said Glorianna Zambon, 17, a junior.
Rodney Alexander III, 16, a sophomore from Bridgeport, used to attend the Zion Lutheran School in Bridgeport.
"I shadowed a bunch of schools and liked this one the most," he said. "It's smaller. Everybody knows everybody, like my old school. Only at my old school, my friends came from California, Puerto Rico and Florida. Now, they come from Japan, China and Costa Rica." Most academic classes take place in Cooper Hall, a former UB dormitory, and in the basement of Marina Dining Hall. Students also have use of the university's library, cafeteria and recreation center. Upperclassmen can take UB courses for an extra fee.
The school runs on a 180-day schedule but also has a summer English as a Second Language program. Tuition is $4,800 for day students; $20,000 for International students.
Bulletin boards in the hallway of the school are filled with colleges and SAT information. Normally, students wear uniforms of navy blue shirts and khaki pants, but during a recent "spirit week" they spent one day dressed in 1970s garb.
"We have a unique school," said Hugh Spurgin. He and his wife have been friends with university president Neil Salonen and his wife, Rebecca, since the late 1960s when they all lived in Washington, D.C.
Despite the friendship, Spurgin said the school pays a fair rent for its space at UB — "much, much more than $100,000 per year," he said.
Eventually, the school plans to move to a new site and double its enrollment.
The school also owns an apartment building at 283-285 Lafayette St. that houses Bridgeport Hope School, a K-8 school also started with church funds.