The thought of going to school used to fill Nolan Kalil with such dread that he would throw up.

He didn’t feel supported by the teachers at his regional public high school in southern New Hampshire. He was normally outgoing but struggled to make friends with classmates.

“It was just awful as a parent to try to force this child to go to a place that he hated,” said Nolan Kalil’s mother, Jaye Kalil, adding that her son suffers from severe anxiety.

Two years later, even as stress from the pandemic has sped a decline in teenage mental health nationwide, Nolan Kalil is a thriving member of the junior class at Harpswell Coastal Academy. He sits on the school’s student advisory board and competes on its e-sports team. He takes college-level classes and imagines a future in graphic design and advertising.

Thanks to Harpswell Coastal Academy’s welcoming atmosphere and supportive teachers, Nolan Kalil said, school has transformed from a prison to a second home. But that home is at risk.

On May 10, the Maine Charter School Commission will vote on HCA’s proposal to consolidate its two campuses. If the body rejects the proposal, as commission staff recommended in April, Harpswell Coastal Academy will not have the funds to remain open beyond the current school year, according to school leaders. That would force some 150 students, many of whom have already struggled to succeed in the traditional public school system, to find a new spot for the fall.


Some, like Nolan Kalil, say they refuse to return to the schools they hated.

“I think I’ll be fine,” he said, explaining he would pursue early graduation or his GED if he can’t return to HCA for his senior year. “But I’m more worried about my classmates, who definitely are going to have a hard time.”


Judy Martin knew early on that her daughter wouldn’t succeed in a classroom where she would have to sit still at a desk for hours at a time.

As a child, Juliana Martin was always on the move, always trying to figure out how things worked. When forced to take a standardized test in elementary school, her mother remembers, Juliana got bored of the questions and began bubbling interesting patterns into her answer sheet.

Rigidly structured public schools often don’t work for kids like Juliana Martin, who has ADHD, Judy Martin said. But Harpswell Coastal Academy, which emphasizes flexibility and hands-on exploration, proved to be a great fit.


High school students at Harpswell Coastal Academy practice painting during an art elective. Contributed / Harpswell Coastal Academy

“She went into sixth grade down there and absolutely flourished.” Judy Martin said. “When you go to a school where the class list includes mud boots, that’s a good class list to have.”

At HCA, instructors teach not only English, science and math, but also passion projects like botany, model United Nations and computer coding. The school’s standards- and projects-based learning philosophy encourages teachers to customize their assignments to better engage their pupils.

“It’s adapting curriculum to students instead of trying to adapt students to curriculum, which fails a good majority of students,” said Karli Jo Clark, a former HCA student who now teaches eighth grade. “What we’re doing is targeted instruction for kids who are falling through the cracks.”

Clark knows about falling through the cracks. At age 16, she was so unhappy at M.S.A.D 75 that she was preparing to drop out of school altogether before she decided to give the Harpswell charter a chance.

If the school closes, she fears, her students won’t find the success she has.

“Unfortunately, what I’m hearing from students is that they’re going to be back in the public schools they left or that they’re going to drop out,” Clark said. “They’re feeling lost and pretty helpless.”


Judy Martin isn’t sure what Juliana, now a junior, will do if she can’t attend HCA next year. They’ve considered finding a home-schooling group, but Judy Martin fears she won’t be able to make scheduling work as a single parent.

“The plan,” she said, “is a lot of trauma.”


Members of the Maine Charter School Commission, which deferred decision on the consolidation proposal at their April 12 meeting, expressed concerns about Harpswell Coastal Academy’s financial outlook, low enrollment trends, operational viability and leadership capacity. According to a Commission staff report, 76% of the school’s 10th graders are “chronically absent,” meaning they miss at least 10% of school days.

“When I look at Harpswell Coastal Academy, I see a failing school,” Victoria Kornfield of Bangor said at the Commission’s April meeting. “I see a school chasing after solutions to very serious problems only when its back was against the wall.”

Middle school students from Harpswell Coastal Academy during a class trip to Malaga Island Preserve last fall. Contributed / Harpswell Coastal Academy

The school’s defenders, including the teachers and administrators who have spent the past month drafting detailed consolidation plans and parents who have contributed to a successful fundraising drive, say it’s important to examine the context behind lagging enrollment and attendance numbers.


“I would urge people who are evaluating our school to look at where the students are when they come in,” Clark said. “We catch them where they are, which is lower, and we slowly are able to rise them higher.”

Though students’ test scores and attendance records may look poor, Clark said they’re better than the alternative many HCA kids consider before arriving: dropping out.

And for parents who have seen their kids struggle with bullying in traditional schools, some things matter more than classroom achievement, Jaye Kalil said.

“Mental health is more important than academics,” she said. “If there’s a student that’s barely existing or on the verge of having a mental breakdown or even suicide, this type of community is far more forgiving and accepting than a Mt. Ararat or Lisbon High School.”


No one in the HCA community knows what will happen at the Commission meeting on Tuesday. Over the past two months, administrators have oscillated between despair and cautious optimism, as skepticism from the Commission staff and an outpouring of support from parents have mixed to form a murky picture of the school’s future.


Junior Trinity Brown with a cat while volunteering at Midcoast Humane. “I have gotten almost 100% out of my comfort zone,” Brown said. Contributed / Trinity Brown

As Head of School Scott Barksdale warned when the Commission deferred judgment on consolidation last month, teachers have searched for backup plans even as they’ve fought to keep the school’s doors open, according to Clark.

“Everyone at the school has been applying everywhere because you’d be stupid not to,” she said. “It puts professionals in a really hard spot.”

Trinity Brown, a junior who like Nolan Kalil credits Harpswell Coastal Academy with helping her overcome her anxiety, said many of her classmates talk about dropping out if the school closes.

Brown won’t drop out, she said, but she doesn’t have a backup plan if she can’t return for her senior year. Mostly, she doesn’t want to think about losing the best support system she’s ever had.

“They’re like my second family,” she said. “I’ve never felt so close to so many people before and so happy to actually live.”

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