New Interim Head of School Mel Christensen Fletcher stands outside Harpswell Coastal Academy on July 5, 2022. Three yurts will be installed nearby later this month. John Terhune / The Times Record

One fight for survival down, another on the way.

Thanks to months of effort from Harpswell Coastal Academy’s faculty and staff, and a wave of support from the community, the charter school defied the odds in May by obtaining permission to consolidate its two campuses, a move that officials said was necessary to keep the school financially viable. Now, after HCA staff and volunteers spent the month of June shuttling boxes and furniture from Brunswick to Harpswell, new Interim Head of School Mel Christensen Fletcher will attempt to guide the institution through consolidation and renewing its charter with the state.

“It’s been a lot over the last couple months,” Christensen Fletcher said.

Christensen Fletcher, who has taught high school science at HCA for the past seven years, played a key role in helping the school navigate a difficult spring, according to administrator Angie Arndt.

“From the minute that we knew we were under the microscope from the Charter Commission, Mel just blew us away,” Arnd said. “She’s just even-keeled, eye on the prize. That’s what’s going to serve us all.”

Earlier this year, school leadership discovered that persistent low enrollment numbers, exacerbated by the pandemic, made the school’s two-campus system financially unworkable. Though HCA’s future looked bleak, Christensen Fletcher worked with outgoing Head of School Scott Barksdale and others to devise the consolidation plan, a $200,000 gambit that would include the installation of three yurts in Harpswell to make room for the school’s approximately 100 high school students.


“She had the positive energy that was just what we needed to pick people up out of despair,” HCA Board Chair Cynthia Shelmerdine said of Christensen Fletcher. “She met the moment exactly.”

When Barksdale announced he would step down at the end of the Spring, Christensen Fletcher jumped at the opportunity to help manage the consolidation project, she said. She applied for the interim head of school position and got the job within a week.

A Brunswick and Harpswell native, Christensen Fletcher was initially drawn to HCA because of the school’s project-based curriculum and focus on the environment. Yet thanks to the school’s collaborative decision-making approach, she soon discovered a passion for helping to shape its mission and policies.

“(HCA) was created less than 10 years ago, and it’s still being created in many ways,” Christensen Fletcher said. “I want to be involved in this next chapter.”

The boxed-up contents of HCA’s former Brunswick campus sits in the gymnasium in Harpswell on July 5, 2022. John Terhune / The Times Record

For the school to continue operating past this year, it will need to win the approval of the Charter School Commission. Though the Commission voted 4-1 in May to approve HCA’s consolidation plan, it also shared concerns about the school’s low enrollment numbers and high chronic absenteeism rate.

“The job is well begun,” Commission Chair Wilson Hess said after the consolidation vote. “But it is only begun. There’s much work left to do.”


While they await the arrival and installation of the new yurts later this month, the school’s families and teachers are working to promote HCA to potential students in order to drive enrollment, Shelmerdine said.

“We have to do much better on enrollment,” she said. “Everything comes down to enrollment.”

While Christensen Fletcher helped craft the school’s new strategies to boost enrollment, others are leading that effort, she said. Instead, the former science teacher’s focus is on a developing new five-year vision for HCA that includes expanding and perfecting the flexible and experiential curriculum that sets it apart from traditional public schools.

“What I really love about HCA is that our curriculum is designed by us with our students to be authentic and to be relevant to them,” she said. “That ‘what do you want to be when you go up?’ question is probably not going to be one thing. We try to make sure our students leave here with experiences that prepare them for different types of things after HCA.”

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