AUGUSTA — The Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Fairfield will be the state’s first charter school, an alternative approach to public education common in other states but new to Maine.

The Maine Charter School Commission voted 5-0 Friday to approve the school, the first to make it through the process. The commission will act on two more applications on Monday, and has delayed consideration of two virtual charter schools until next year.

“This is a really great day for the state of Maine and for the commissioner and governor who headed up this plan for charter schools,” said Commission Chairman Jim Banks.

The Maine Academy of Natural Sciences opened in September with a focus on farming, forestry and the environment. It’s currently a private school affiliated with Good Will-Hinckley, but will now be eligible to receive state funding as a charter school.

This fall, 42 students are expected to enroll and in five years, the school hopes to serve 120 students in grades 9-12, according to Emanuel Pariser, co-director of the school.

“It’s huge in the sense that we’ve created a school meeting specific needs for kids that have not been met in the traditional school system,” he said.

Some have failed in the public schools and others are average students, he said. Although the school will still raise money to help pay for expenses, the charter designation now gives it a sustainable funding source.

Good Will-Hinckley, which previously educated troubled young people without a stable place to live, closed its core operations in June 2009. Officials at the time blamed policy changes by state and federal agencies to cut reimbursement rates for residential care programs and the economic downturn, which slashed the organization’s income from fundraising and the school’s endowment.

Because it is on the Good Will-Hinckley campus, the school can accommodate students who come all over the state and need to live on campus throughout the week, said co-director Troy Frost. Also, the school is affiliated with Kennebec Valley Community College, which allows the students to earn college credits while still in high school.

Charter schools are public schools that are relieved of some of the regulations and restrictions on traditional public schools. The money allocated for each student at a traditional public school follows the student to a charter school.

Maine became the 41st state to allow charter schools when the Republican-led Legislature approved legislation last year. The law allows only 10 charter schools to be approved in the first decade.

During a brief meeting Friday, the commission expressed few concerns about the natural sciences application. For the most part, the school seeks to fulfill the intention of charter schools, which should help students who don’t perform well in traditional school settings and offer them different areas of study.

“They are proposing to serve a population that has a higher failure rate than the general population,” said Richard Barnes, a commission member who led the review team for the natural sciences application.

One commission member did express concern about the academic expectations set by the school. William Shuttleworth said the threshold for achievement should not be lower than in the public schools.

“At-risk does not mean you have lower thresholds on the ability to learn,” he said. “I think it sets a bad precedent for charter schools.”

That issue, and some concerns about the membership of the board that will oversee the school, will be worked out through contract negotiations between the commission and the school, Barnes said.

State Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said it was exciting to see the first charter school get the final OK.

“This is the kind of model people had in mind,” he said. “It embraces a specific approach and meets the needs of a population that our system sometimes struggles with.”

On Monday, the commission will review an application from Baxter Academies of Maine, which hopes to open a school in Portland, and the Cornville Regional Charter School, which was organized by parents who opposed the closure of Cornville’s elementary school two years ago.

Susan Cover — 621-5643

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