HARPSWELL – It’s been two years since children ran through the halls of the shuttered elementary school on Ash Point Road.
Echoes of their youthful energy linger in the bare classrooms, where handwritten names still label a line of brass coat hooks on a wall and “miss you WHS” messages are scrawled on the chalkboards of what was West Harpswell School before consolidation closed its doors.
Now the school is scheduled to live again, as Harpswell Coastal Academy, one of five charter schools in the state and one of three opening this fall.
“I think the community in general, not just families with children, have really embraced the idea of the school,” said Harpswell resident Lori Hodell, whose son Lucien is one of the incoming sixth-graders. He was a third-grader at West Harpswell when it closed.
“He is pretty happy” about coming back, his mother said.
The charter school is the brainchild of a group of local residents who believed some of the Harpswell students now traveling up to an hour each way to other schools were “disengaged” and weren’t doing as well as they could, said Harpswell Head of School John D’Anieri.
The group narrowed in on forming a small charter school focused on agriculture and marine sciences, rooted in the rugged nature of this part of Maine. D’Anieri, a local resident who helped create Portland’s Casco Bay High School as a school designer for Expeditionary Learning, signed on to help create the new school.
“The people in Harpswell want a school of their own,” said local farmer Joe Grady, a former Casco Bay High School teacher who introduced D’Anieri to the group.
They want the next generation to learn skills that fit the local economy, “skills that are entrepreneurial, that are natural resources-based,” Grady said. “And that’s hard to find in a setting if you’re not able to go out and get in it every day.”
Harpswell Coastal Academy will open this fall with 60 students total in two grades: sixth and ninth. Additional grades and students will be added over the years, with a goal enrollment of 280 students in grades 6-12 by the fall of 2017.
Much of the philosophy reflects the flexible education model of Expeditionary Learning schools. The work is project-based, students are grouped by ability, and there is considerable hands-on work.
Harpswell Coastal Academy will also be very “place-based,” with school lessons tied directly to local people, places and economies. Students will be out in the field two days a week, working in a mud flat or with a local farmer, according to Carrie McColgan-Branson, assistant head of school.
“We’re really going to be using Harpswell and the surrounding communities,” McColgan-Branson said. “It’s a way to take (learning) out of the textbooks and into real world problems and solutions.”
Hodell said she liked that philosophy, which fits in with the way she home-schooled her three older children.
“We did things,” she said. “There’s a lot of really hands-on, getting dirty kind of learning.”
TOWN MAPPING PROJECT
One of the first school projects planned is a town mapping project, D’Anieri said. In addition to regular geographic maps, the students will create economic development maps, historical maps, political maps — part of the school’s plan to firmly root the lessons in the local community, which has fewer than 5,000 residents.
The school has already made an arrangement with the local paper, the Harpswell Anchor, to have student work published regularly, another class requirement.
“We want to make products that are useful to people,” McColgan-Branson said.
Most of the major pieces are in place for the school to open in the fall: A one-year lease on the building was signed last month, teachers have been hired and school officials have nearly completed a $125,000 fundraising effort. The funds will supplement roughly $500,000 in state funds expected from per-pupil revenue that flows from the district where a student lives.
MONEY FOLLOWS STUDENTS
Three-quarters of the students will come from Brunswick and SAD 75 school districts, with fewer than three students coming from RSU 1 in the Bath area, RSU 5 in the Freeport area and one or two students from as far away as Leeds and Augusta.
SAD 75 Superintendent Brad Smith said his district will lose 27 students to the school, and that means about $300,000 less in state funds for the district. However, some money will return to the district since Harpswell Coastal Academy has contracted with SAD 75 for some special education and transportation services.
“I do believe there is a need to provide alternative methods of teaching and learning which will be beneficial to certain students,” Smith wrote in an email. “Under current law however, the funding does impact the local districts where charter schools are located and drawing students.”
Smith echoes a common criticism of the state charter law, that having per-pupil money follow a student from a sending district to a charter school has too much financial impact on a particular district. A proposal to spread out that per-pupil cost among all districts statewide failed in the last legislative session.
D’Anieri and McColgan-Branson are aware that there are frequently tensions between charter schools and local school districts, but say their school is different because of its close ties to the town.
“It was a genuinely community-based project,” D’Anieri said, noting that Harpswell school officials are not advocates of school choice or vouchers.
“I just really think it’s an excellent alternative to a traditional public school,” Hodell said. At larger public schools, “they teach to the middle, and children that are particularly bright and children that have delays don’t always receive as customized a plan.”
Maine’s public charter school law, which took effect in 2011, allows the Maine Charter School Commission to authorize up to 10 public charter schools over 10 years.
BAXTER, FIDDLEHEAD ALSO OPENING
Also opening this fall is Baxter Academy for Technology and Science in Portland, with about 120 students in ninth and 10th grades, and Fiddlehead School of Arts and Science in Gray, with about 42 students in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and first and second grades.
Two charter schools, Cornville Regional Charter School and the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, formerly known as Good Will-Hinckley, opened last year.
Harpswell Selectwoman Elinor Multer said the school has local backers, and town officials are glad to lease them the old school.
“I think there’s a place in the world for charter schools, (even if) they’re no panacea,” she said. “This one being coastal-focused, that’s very nice. That fits very nicely with Harpswell. But I understand that they represent a hardship for the public school system.
“That’s kind of a mixed bag.”
D’Anieri said the founders created the school by being “very thoughtful about building bridges without pushing buttons. … We’re not painting it as a ‘this or that,’ but as something different.”
Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: