Cajal Academy Comes To Town

Santiago Ramón y Cajal is “the father of neuroscience.”

The Spanish scientist won a Nobel Prize for his investigation into the microscopic structure of the brain. He was also a talented artist, who drew detailed images of what he saw.

He’s a classic example of a “twice-exceptional” person, says Cheryl Viirand. She’s the founder and head of a school for bright, gifted and twice-exceptional children with high analytic reasoning and/or creative thinking skills, accompanied by an area of special education need. who don’t thrive in mainstream educational settings.

Viirand named it Cajal Academy. Tonight, the Fairfield non-profit school seeks Planning & Zoning Commission approval to move to Westport.

The site is 25 Sylvan Road South. The low-slung office building across from an indoor tennis facility is a perfect location for a school that emphasizes hands-on, experiential learning., Viirand says. It’s adaptable for small classes offering individual attention. Stony Brook runs behind it; it’s also close to both the Saugatuck River and downtown. 

Stony Brook runs next to the 25 Sylvan Road South building.

Viirand began her career as a corporate litigator. But she has 2 children in the “twice-exceptional” cohort. Neither one had their academic and therapeutic needs met in traditional schools.

Realizing there were others like her kids — and that they needed not only individualized, highly customized attention from a staff of professionals trained in the latest neuroscience, but also a feeling of kinship — she formed her own

Cajal Academy professionals (from left): Heather Edwards, occupational therapist and co-founder); Cheryl Viirand, head of School and co-founder); Dr. Steven Matthis, neuropsychologist, psychologist and director of programs.

“There have been incredible advances in neuroscience,” she says. “But they haven’t yet made it into clasrooms.”

Cajal Academy opened in January 2020, on Linwood Avenue in Fairfield. Two months later, COVID forced the innovative new school into virtual mode. It reopened physically this past September.

Viirand likes the recreational opportunities near the present site. But she can’t wait to take advantage of all that Westport offers. The expanded space will broaden the current age range (grades 6 to 11), to kindergarten through 12th.

“These kids make friends who are older and younger,” she notes.

Learning by doing …

She loves Westport’s “feeling of community, and the vibrant downtown. Our curriculum is project-based, with lots of environmental opportunities. A brook runs right behind it. We’re near the Library. And we’d like to partner with businesses close by, to enrich learning.”

Realtor Chris Maglione worked hard to find the right space. Hal Fischel, who owns the Sylvan Road building, is highly supportive of Cajal, Viirand says.

“This won’t feel like a school. There are skylights, and a sense of creativity in the way it will be set up. There’s room to grow organically.”

Westport town officials have been ” incredibly generous with their time,” Viirand adds. Her fingers are crossed for final approval.

When it comes, she’s ready to launch a summer program. Santiago Ramón y Cajal would be thrilled.

… and moving.

8 responses to “Cajal Academy Comes To Town

  1. Holy crap! What a gift to our town this lady is bringing! Thank you, Ms. Viirand on behalf all those twice “special” kids who are now being skimmed over by our current public school availabilities.

  2. Barbara Greenspan

    How fabulous! This is a wonderful idea! What a great team! Best wishes to Heather Edwards, the occupational therapist, involved in the school!

  3. This is awesome. I hope our P&Z sees the value of this wonderful endeavor and approves it ASAP. Best of luck to these caring, hard-working individuals!

  4. Since 1985 I (neuroscientist/psychologist).have been dealing with such children Fascinating! Historically such children are over 4 times as likely to “get into trouble” and even worse, have their gifts stunted REMARKABLY. David Singer

  5. John Kelley

    The April issue of Scientific American has a good article on Cajal’s work discussing his talent both as a scientist and an artist. His work was made possible by a staining technique invented by Camillo Golgi, and despite the fact that the technique reveals nerves are discrete rather than continuous organs, Golgi insisted on the later explanation. Their relationship grew contentious and as fate would have it, they were forever united in jointly winning the Nobel prize.

  6. Mary Maynard

    This is so very needed! Please vote “yes.”

  7. Cheryl Viirand

    Thank you Westport for all your support and the enthusiastic welcome! We are so thrilled to have received approval last night and look forward to shifting our program to our new location soon!

  8. PLASTIC TOYS: The bane of my existence! As a grandfather; I know that if a youngster is left in a room without any toys, he/she will create something to play with. These pictures reinforce that idea – kudos!