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
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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Harpswell's was created, much like Cornville's, after the town struggled with what to do with a shuttered elementary school. A group of local residents 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 decided to form a charter school focused on agriculture and marine sciences, which form the basis of the local economy. D'Anieri, a local resident who helped create Portland's Casco Bay High School as a school designer for Expeditionary Learning, signed on to do the same in Harpswell.

"The people in Harpswell want a school of their own," said local farmer Joe Grady, a former Casco Bay High teacher who introduced D'Anieri to the group.


Fiddlehead, in contrast, is an expanded version of a long-running private after-school and pre-K program. The charter school broke off from the parent entity, the Fiddlehead Center, for legal reasons, but it had an existing building to use, and existing board members and teachers who transitioned to the charter.

The school's founder, Jacinda Cotton-Castro, said she started hearing about the possibility of charter schools in Maine 10 years ago.

"I've been watching and waiting," she said. "Everything happens at the right time. The door is open now and we're walking through it."

Cotton-Castro said charter school students can be seamlessly transitioned to after-school programs run by the parent corporation. Plus, the relationship with the families and community members has been in place for years.

"Some students are coming back," Cotton-Castro said, estimating that about 25 percent of the inaugural class this year once attended a Fiddlehead program. The school had to hold a lottery to select the students after 103 families applied for the school's 42 slots.

The Fiddlehead program started as an after-school program in Gray, then moved to New Gloucester and added pre-K. In 2007, the program moved to its current Gray location. The charter school will open with pre-K, kindergarten and a combined first- and second-grade classroom.

"A lot of this has been about a vision," Cotton-Castro said.


Baxter was founded by John Jaques and a group of parents, and initially planned to open in 2012. But startup issues and questions from the charter commission delayed the opening, then the board of directors switched leadership earlier this year. The mission of the school, to attract high school students interested in STEM, has never changed.

The school has an engineering lab in addition to several classrooms, and is looking to partner with the nearby University of Southern Maine or local businesses to give students access to more sophisticated equipment and provide mentoring and real-world educational opportunities.

An example of the students' hands-on role: On day two, they are putting together the Ikea furniture for the classrooms.

The school has had a string of controversies since March, when Jaques left. That led to new donor financing and legal disputes. A few months later, the school hosted a school choice luncheon for the Maine Heritage Policy Center, and LePage blasted Senate President Justin Alfond, a Democrat, for his criticism of the school for affiliating with the conservative advocacy group.

Last week, the school was issued a temporary occupancy permit after failing two earlier building inspections at its leased space, despite state rules that require charters to have renovations done and permits in hand more than two weeks before opening. The charter commission waived those deadlines.


The next round of charter school applications, for the five remaining spots, are due this week.

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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?



View Results