July 20, 2013

New Harpswell charter school suits local economy

Harpswell Coastal Academy will emphasize agriculture and marine sciences.

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

HARPSWELL – It's been two years since children ran through the halls of the shuttered elementary school on Ash Point Road.

click image to enlarge

The West Harpswell School will house the new Harpswell Coastal Academy, a charter school that will enroll 60 students when it opens this fall.

John Ewing / Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

The West Harpswell School will house the new Harpswell Coastal Academy, a charter school that will enroll 60 students when it opens this fall. Carrie Branson, assistant head of school, and John D'Anieri, head of school, look over the school's multipurpose (cafeteria/gymnasium) room during a tour Wednesday, July 17, 2013.

John Ewing / Staff Photographer

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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."


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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

The West Harpswell School will house the new Harpswell Coastal Academy, a charter school that will enroll 60 students when it opens this fall. The school currently houses the town's public library.

John Ewing / Staff Photographer


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