August 3, 2013

First charter school graduates its first class

The 10 graduates of the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences are praised for overcoming challenges.

By RACHEL OHM Morning Sentinel

FAIRFIELD - Good things come from humble beginnings.

That was the message to graduates at Friday's commencement exercises at the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences.

"Never did I foresee becoming a scientist or writer. It takes more than a dream, it takes effort and a willingness to explore and get out in nature," said Bernd Heinrich, the keynote speaker.

That message was echoed by others at the graduation, which was not only important for the school's 10 graduates, but historic for the state.

The academy's class of 2013 is the first class to graduate from a charter school in Maine. The school, which opened in September 2011, became Maine's first charter school in October.

The academy, founded on the legacy of the Good Will-Hinckley Home for Boys & Girls, a school and home for troubled youths that closed in 2009, offers an alternative agriculture-focused curriculum for students who may not succeed in a traditional classroom setting.

"You have overcome some of life's greatest challenges," Maine Senate President Justin Alfond told the graduates. "Life is not easy, but your being here in the face of adversity says a lot about each and every one of you and your abilities to be resilient."

Alfond, whose criticism of the leaders of the charter school in Portland has angered Gov. Paul LePage, applauded the academy's faculty and staff for a successful school year.

His family, which runs the Harold Alfond Foundation, is known for supporting education in Maine and donated $1 million to the academy on the first day of classes, in October.

The school, which runs on a trimester schedule, enrolled 44 students from 27 school districts around the state this year. The plan is to enroll 67 to 70 students in 2013-14, and there is a waiting list of 20, said spokeswoman Rebecca Pollard.

It was one of two schools, along with the Cornville Regional Charter School in Cornville, to receive charters in June 2012. Since then, three more charter schools have been approved to open this fall: Baxter Academy for Technology and Science in Portland, Fiddlehead School of Art and Science in Gray and Harpswell Coastal Academy in Harpswell.

The Legislature approved the creation of charter schools in June 2011, making Maine the 41st state to do so. The law allows 10 charter schools in the first decade.

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, who also attended Friday's ceremony, said that in the first year for Maine charter schools there has been controversy over the model for a number of reasons, including the concern that they draw state funding from school districts.

But Friday wasn't about that. It was about the success of students like Emily Baker of Hallowell.

Baker, one of two student speakers at the graduation, addressed her classmates with the message that, to succeed, it is important to love yourself.

The 18-year-old, who has a full scholarship to study sustainable agriculture at Kennebec Valley Community College, said that before coming to the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, she didn't feel challenged and had a hard time connecting with teachers and students at Hall-Dale High School in Farmingdale.

"I know I don't speak for everyone, but many of the students here felt that regular public school couldn't meet their needs," said Baker. "This school brought my smile back."

Rachel Ohm can be contacted at 612-2368 or at:


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