The Maine Charter School Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to advance an application for an ecology-based charter high school in Unity, putting the school on the path to becoming the state’s 10th and final charter school to open under current law limiting the number of charters in the state.

The Ecology Learning Center would have grades 9-12 in school of fewer than 100 students operating on the campus of Unity College that would serve students from Waldo County and beyond, its application said.

“I’m pleased and excited,” said Lisa Packard, the school’s executive director.”We’re especially excited about the partnership with Unity College. We see this as a great opportunity for high school students to have positive exposure to post-secondary education.”

The commission’s decision to accept the application means it will now move to a public interview and hearing, with a decision on whether to grant a charter expected next month.

It also means the school could be the final charter school to open in Maine, since current law caps the number of charter schools statewide at 10.

The 90-minute public interview is scheduled for 2 p.m. Wednesday and will be followed by a public hearing from 4-6 p.m. at the Augusta Civic Center’s Washington/ York Room.

Also Tuesday, the commission unanimously rejected an application for Sheffwood Academy, a proposed Topsham-area charter school that would serve up to 700 middle and high school students.

“There were a number of parts of the rubric the school either did not meet or only partially met,” said Bob Kautz, executive director of the Maine Charter School Commission and a member of the application review committee. “We did not have the confidence they would be able to open up a successful charter school with so many questions.”

The rubric used to evaluate Sheffwood’s application indicates the school did not have adequate plans for meeting the needs of special student populations and at-risk students; its graduation requirements did not ensure college readiness; and the school did not have enough in place to demonstrate cultural inclusiveness.

Meleena Erikson, a founding board member for Sheffwood Academy, said she was disappointed by the rejection of the school’s application and felt what had been submitted was as complete as possible.

“I’m not sure what else we could have done,” Erikson said. “If there was something specific it would have been great to have been told that. Certainly if we missed or overlooked something we would have been happy to include it.”

The school also failed to provide enough detail about its staffing and financial plans and the committee expressed concerns about board members having a lack of experience in financial management, the commission said.

“If the Ecology Learning Center is not granted a charter, obviously there would be a spot available, but I would have to meet with the board and see what their thoughts were (before we submit again),” Erikson said. “I think we would really have to better understand some of those areas they were expressing as weaknesses, especially where we didn’t think it was a weakness or we thought it was something we could overcome.”

Kautz said the review team and commission were “very pleased” with the application from the Ecology Learning Center.

“They seemed to know very well what the situation is and what the interest and needs are of the population of high school students that might be in that area,” he said. “They are developing a program that addresses those needs and we feel would be a good fit in the area.”

Most criteria on the evaluation rubric for that school were met, although the review committee did have a handful of concerns.

They included a need for more information about how the school will identify at-risk students and minimize dropouts, and a lack of evidence the learning environment would be culturally responsive.

The rubric also noted that low pay for a head of school – proposed at $66,000 including benefits – might make it hard to attract and retain qualified candidates.

“I look forward to hearing more feedback directly from the charter commission and the chance to respond to their concerns,” Packard said. “I think overall what I heard from the commission today was they believe we know and understand Waldo County very well and therefore we are culturally in tune with prospective students who will attend.”

The commission is expected to make a decision on whether to grant a charter next month. If that happens the school has said it would like to open in the fall of 2020.


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