Student speaker Sam Kemos addresses the rest of his 31-person graduating class on June 3, 2022. John Terhune/The Time Record

A hodgepodge of plastic seats, wooden benches and folding chairs dotted Harpswell Coastal Academy’s kickball field, where approximately 200 people gathered Friday evening to celebrate the charter school’s 31 graduating seniors.

The off-beat ceremony, highlighted by a comedy roast of the graduates and a bluesy performance of Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me,” befitted a community that prides itself on standing out from the traditional public school system.

“It’s not going to be perfect,” student speaker Ellie Wishman-Freedner told the crowd at the top of her remarks. “But it’s going to be beautiful. And that’s the HCA way.”

Harpswell Coastal Academy survived a crisis this year, one that called its future into question until the Maine Charter School Commission approved the institution’s plan to consolidate its two campuses. According to outgoing Head of School Scott Barksdale, who opened the graduation ceremony with a short speech about mindfulness, HCA could not have remained open past this year without consolidation, due to financial issues driven by low enrollment numbers.

HCA graduates march to the school’s kickball field during a 6/3 graduation ceremony. John Terhune/The Times Record

“Anxiety, fear and hopelessness have not been strangers to us,” said student speaker Sam Kemos, citing the school’s brush with closure, the pandemic and the death of middle school counselor Amanda Wogaman in September. “However, time and time again we rise above. We’ve always been there for each other.”

Teachers Caleb Christensen Fletcher and Zach Gagnon, selected as speakers by the students, provided the bulk of the evening’s comedic relief. They spent most of their 10 minutes “roasting” each graduate with rapid-fire jokes and affirmations that ranged from light teasing to heartfelt reflection.


“Pop quiz, Zach Perry,” Gagnon said. “Who has a really kind heart for his friends and is capable of great things? It’s you!”

Gagnon then took up an electric bass and performed lead vocals on the Withers’ classic. Students Jillian Truden and Kemos accompanied him on keyboard and guitar.

Students Sam Kemos and Jillian Truden join teacher Zach Gagnon for a performance of “Lean on Me.” John Terhune/The Times Record

Wishman-Freedner, an HCA student since 6th grade, served as the event’s final speaker.

“I just feel so honored to be a member of the HCA community,” she said. “It’s special. It’s beautiful. It’s something unique. It’s hard to put into words what I feel for HCA because there’s so much to say.”

Many Harpswell Coastal Academy students, including Mitchell Scholarship Award winner Thomas Crimmins, say they struggled to succeed socially or academically in the traditional public school system before finding a footing at HCA.

Crimmins will be among the staff, students and volunteers who will spend the month of June packing up HCA’s Brunswick campus, where the school’s high school programs have been based. Three yurts, which will be installed over the summer, will serve as outdoor classrooms next year when the high schoolers join grades 5-8 in Harpswell.

“The miracle portion is done,” said Cynthia Shelmerdine, chair of the school’s board of directors. “Now the hard work portion is underway.”

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