September 3, 2013

Maine charter schools break new ground

The state will have five of the schools when three more open this week, overcoming some continued opposition.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Cody Buzzell, 17, stands in the shadow of Moody Chapel as a rainbow shines over the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences during the charter school’s first commencement event, held last month at the former Good Will-Hinckley School campus in Fairfield.

Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

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Elementary teacher Kimberly Jordan organizes materials as she prepares for opening day at the Fiddlehead School of Arts & Sciences in Gray.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Charter school proponents say they simply want to offer students a choice, and that they draw students from many districts, diluting the impact. But critics point to Skowhegan's situation as evidence that local districts are harmed by a nearby charter school.

Several bills have been proposed to change charter school funding to avoid similar problems in the future. They range from proposals to cut the allocations in half, to eliminating state funding altogether, to spreading the per-pupil cost out statewide instead of coming from the sending district. One bill suggested that no state funds be available for charter school students who were previously home-schooled or attended private schools.

None of the bills was successful in the past legislative session, but more charter school funding bills are expected in the next session.

Despite the controversy over funding, MeANS founder Glenn Cummings, a former Democratic state legislator who also worked in the Obama administration, said he has been surprised at the cooperation he's received in political circles.

"They say Democrats hate charters for all the right reasons and Republicans love them for all the wrong reasons, but that turned out to be not true in Maine," Cummings said. "I witnessed very thoughtful questions and discussions in the education committee about the best way to implement (charters) in a way that's fair."

MeANS has had an easier time, he said, because it tries to focus on students who may not easily fit in at traditional schools, "so we've had a lot of support from the districts."

Previously, Good Will-Hinckley served at-risk students, but the charter school has attracted a broader demographic, from some at-risk students to academically gifted students who like the work-at-your-own-pace ethic, he said.

In contrast, Baxter has come under direct fire from Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, who this spring asked Maine Attorney General Janet T. Mills to freeze all state contract negotiations with the school and investigate allegations of financial mismanagement that were raised when the school ousted its founder and subsequently sued him. Mills did not act.

Maine Charter School Commission Executive Director Bob Kautz said the charter schools are drawing in passionate backers and hiring talented teachers.

"It says something about charters in Maine that people have moved across the country to work at Baxter," said Kautz, referring to teachers hired from charter schools in San Diego and Philadelphia. "We've got people with great skills coming to work with students in Maine."

CORNVILLE HAS AGRICULTURAL FOCUS

The Cornville charter school was created after the local district closed the elementary school in the 1,200-person town. As the town tried to determine what to do with the building, the charter school legislation was signed into law, and the building committee moved in that direction.

Belanger said there was tremendous support from local businesses and town officials. The town sold the school building to the charter school for $1, a local business gave it a no-interest loan to launch, an insurance company paid the school's first premiums, and the town paid $50,000 to heat the shuttered school during the charter school application process.

When it came time to open, demand was so high that school officials held a lottery to select students, Belanger said. They had to do the same this year.

And while many of the students in the initial class were students returning to their "old" school, their school day was completely different.

Cornville students spend 60 to 90 minutes every day on agricultural education. They map and clear nearby trails, work in a local orchard and raise chickens in the classroom, Belanger said.

The new schools opening this year all have different origins.

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At the Fiddlehead School of Arts & Sciences, The Courtyard space is a multipurpose great room that also will serve as the cafeteria, said Executive Director Jacinda Cotton-Castro.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

  


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Today's poll: Charter schools

Do you support the idea of charter schools?

Yes

No

View Results