BRANFORD — “I escaped from forced labor in Cambodia,” Ethan Reynolds said in his character as Chan Khan, standing in a hut he built himself. A seventh-grader at the Connecticut Experiential Learning Center, a private middle school in Branford, he was demonstrating the life of a refugee from the murderous regime of Pol Pot’s Communist Khmer Rouge in the 1960s.

As Mr. Chan, Ethan wore Cambodian clothing at the CELC interactive presentation, a “Living Museum” at the Soundview Family YMCA in Branford on Friday, June 7. In Mr. Chan’s hut were artifacts from the journey Chan took, including a small blanket given to “him” in the refugee camp — his only possession there. The research paper he wrote about that Cambodian era lay on the small table that represented Mr. Chan’s new life in America in one section of the display.

Like all the other students at CELC, Ethan spent the school year researching and writing about immigrants for the theme of “Heritage, Ethnicity, and Quest for Freedom.” Each student chose a country from a list of countries where large groups had immigrated (forced or unforced) to the United States. Ethan said he chose Cambodia because he was curious about Asia.

The assignment at CELC was to develop a person typical of the era, research the era thoroughly, write a research paper of 1,000-3,000 words, build a display representing the immigrant’s life before, during and after immigrating to the United States, then talk about the immigrant’s story and conclusions from the research.

The school founded in 2009 includes many field trips as part of the curriculum. This year’s travel included a trip to Ellis Island and the Tenement Museum in New York City. The school brings in adjuncts in fields such as art, music, crafting, environmental education, and Spanish language for specialized instruction. The curriculum is interdisciplinary.

Co-founders Melinda Alcosser and Maria Mortali created the school to give middle school children the opportunity to “discover the thrill of learning, master academic subjects, make good friends, and understand themselves.”

Alcosser and Mortali are available to the 10 students enrolled, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week, by text, email, or phone calls.

Alcosser previously taught at Wightwood School. When the Branford private school closed, “parents begged us to start another school like it.” She joined with Mortali to “make these middle school years powerful and impactful, tap into the curiosity they’re born with, develop socially, and discover what they’re capable of.”

Christine Dokko sent her younger son to CELC because her older son “had felt so much pressure for college, and he was not able to explore. At CELC, they explore through experiences and personal attention.”

Another parent, Steven Reynolds from Durham, said the school “strikes a nice balance between firm hand-holding and independence. The social growth of my son has been unbelievable — from a quiet kid, he blossomed and became more confident.”

Prospective students visit the school first so families can “discover if it’s a good fit and if they are interested in trying new things,” according to Alcosser. The small enrollment has become what students say is “a family.”

Dokko reported her daughter said there are “no cliques. We’re like a family.”

McNamara said, “When there are conflicts, because they are close, they have to work it out.”

Around the room at the Y, other CELC middle-schoolers represented countries where large groups have emigrated to the United States. Their months of research were focused on what pushed those people to leave their home countries and what pulled them to the United States.

Matthew Goldblum, a sixth-grader, wrote a 2,000-word research paper, “From Racist Reception to Integrated Citizens: Japanese Immigration and the Impact on the United States.” His interactive display included a flyer from the 1940s: “Instructions to All Persons of JAPANESE Ancestry Living in the Following Area — Dates to Leave.” His character was “Haru,” a man of 19 years old, originally raised on a silk farm in Japan. His display featured Haru’s life in Japan, his immigration to America between 1910-1920, and the trauma of internment during World War II.

Nick Straka, an eighth-grader, stood next to a small boat he had built to represent a slave ship that carried slaves from Nigeria to the American colonies. “Amead” was one of the slaves. Nick’s display included a poster announcing: “To Be Sold July 24, 1769 on Thursday the third day of August next … A Cargo of ninety-four prime, healthy NEGROES.” He wrote a lengthy research paper and developed a visual time line from 1501 when the first slaves were conveyed from Africa to the North American continent, to Dec. 18, 1865, on the adoption of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, abolishing slavery.

Nick said, “I knew about slavery, but not in-depth. Now I understand how a slave felt.”

Emma Hughes, grade six, was making tortillas in her display, representing some of the life of a refugee from Guatemala. She learns Spanish at CELC in Branford and FaceTimes with a teacher living in Guatemala.

Natalia Brown, a seventh-grader, was curious about how the Italian food she loves “actually got here to America.” In her research, she discovered that the waves of immigrants from the southern part of Italy left because “the government preferred the north of Italy and there was so much poverty in the south.”

Julian Scharf, a seventh-grader, chose to study Cuba and why Fidel Castro took over the island in 1959, driving many Cubans to flee. Julian became a refugee he called “Ricardo Sanchez” and built a raft that some refugees used to float from Cuba to Florida. “I plan to try out my raft at Jacobs Beach in Guilford,” he said, smiling.

Evan Stein became “Carl Chang” and studied the Chinese Exclusion Act, which became law on May 6, 1882, that banned all immigration from China. Evan explained that earlier Chinese immigrants first came to work in the gold mines, then helped build the transcontinental railroad. Ethan’s display included a stretch of railroad track on the floor. His research paper reported that as the Chinese prospered later as entrepreneurs, resentment grew into banning further immigration from China for 10 years.

Avi Yarlagadda researched Mexico and became the typical immigrant he named “Diego Poco.” Avi was interested in why Mexico had seven presidents between 1910 and 1920 during the Mexican Revolution. That Civil War, with the heralded Pancho Villa, “was the downfall of Mexico — it resulted in poverty and many deaths. I learned the war changed the entire idea of how Mexico became a country with lots of poverty.”

Harper Reed chose Germany during the Holocaust as her in-depth research project and produced a display of colorful maps she created herself, lists of immigration data, and a long research paper. Her immigrant character was “Greta.”

The CELC program emphasizes in-depth understanding of one historical era with elements that can be applied to other eras throughout history. Each research paper is revised many times under the guidance of Mortali and uses citations from sources in Modern Language Association format, required in high school and college writing.

Tuition this year was $23,950 and includes all materials and the extensive travel. Information: or 203-433-4658.

Connecticut Media Group