Harpswell Coastal Academy’s yurts, which were cited as key components of the school’s consolidation plan, stand unfinished on Sept. 22, 2022. John Terhune / The Times Record

Last spring, an outpouring of community support helped keep Harpswell Coastal Academy alive despite financial and enrollment struggles that nearly doomed the charter school, which takes in students who often don’t feel at home in the traditional public school system.

Next week, in the face of construction delays that have forced students into close quarters to start the academic year, administrators hope testimony from students, parents and community members will help HCA clear one more daunting hurdle: the charter renewal process.

Harpswell Coastal Academy, unified on one campus after a hectic consolidation process this summer, will host the Maine Charter School Commission for a public hearing from 4:30 to 6 p.m. on Sept. 29. The school’s supporters will make their case for why the commission, which last spring expressed concerns about HCA’s enrollment and attendance, should offer it a new five-year charter.

“There are a lot of people that have taken advantage of coming here that have really discovered a different way to approach their education that works for them, that makes them feel successful,” Interim Head of School Mel Christensen Fletcher said. “We want to make sure that that option continues to be here.”

Internal survey data and state test scores suggest HCA is on the right track, she said.

According to the school’s charter renewal application, 60% of HCA students met growth goals in mathematics on their NWEA standardized tests last year, up from less than 30% in 2017-18. Just over 60% of students met growth goals in language, up from around 40% five years ago.

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“All of the measures that we looked at showed the same thing,” Christensen Fletcher said. “Over the past five years, we’ve seen steady improvement as a school.”

Yet despite the school’s apparent academic progress, its transition to a single campus hasn’t gone as smoothly as hoped.

Principal Amy Marx told The Times Record in August she expected contractors would complete work on three yurts before the arrival of students this fall, but the structures remain unfinished. The construction delays have forced HCA’s fifth- and sixth-grade teachers to make classrooms out of the library and a sectioned off corner of the multipurpose room that functions as both a gymnasium and a cafeteria.

The school’s low enrollment, which was a sticking point with the Charter Commission last spring, also has proved a difficult challenge to solve, Christensen Fletcher said, adding that uncertainty around the HCA’s future has made it difficult to recruit new students. Currently, 170 students attend Harpswell Coastal Academy, down from 184 a year ago and 205 from 2017-18.

So far, the yurt delay hasn’t been an issue for teachers and students, according to Christensen Fletcher, who hopes the structures will be ready for students in October.

She said the bigger challenge to renewal may be the appointment of up to three new members of the commission, who are set to replace several outgoing members who all supported HCA’s consolidation plan last spring.

James R. Handy of Lewiston already has been sworn in as one of the commission’s seven voting members, according to Gina Post, the body’s interim executive director. The secretary of state’s office has not yet announced when two other candidates, Leigh Weisenburger Albert of Lewiston and Norman E. Higgins of Sebec, could take their seats.

With Harpswell Coastal Academy needing five members to vote in favor of renewal (or four members if a vacancy on the board remains unfilled) at the commission’s Oct. 11 meeting, the school’s fate may rest with the community members who turned out by the dozens to keep its doors open last spring.

Those interested in sharing their thoughts on HCA with the Charter School Commission can attend the Sept. 29 public hearing in person or via Zoom. The commission will also accept written testimony emailed to [email protected] until 5 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 6.

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