Harpswell Coastal Academy parents, students and supporters wait for their chance to speak in support of the school on September 29, 2022. John Terhune / The Times Record

More than 30 students, parents and community members spoke in support of Harpswell Coastal Academy at a public hearing Thursday, less than two weeks before the Maine Charter School Commission is set to decide the school’s future.

“HCA is our Goldilocks school: It is just right,” said parent Leslie Watts, speaking to a crowd of about 80 live and virtual attendees. “And you can see that it’s the Goldilocks for a lot of other people.”

Harpswell Coastal Academy, which offers an experienced-based curriculum to students in grades 5-12, has served as a haven for many kids who struggle to succeed socially or academically in the traditional public school system. But low enrollment and high chronic absenteeism rates have put the school on shaky ground in the final months of its current five-year charter.

In May, lobbying efforts from dozens of community members helped convince the Charter Commission to approve HCA’s plan to consolidate its two campuses, a move administrators said was necessary for the school’s survival. While the vote helped keep the institution’s doors open this fall, Commission members warned that they needed to see improvement before renewing HCA’s charter.

“The job is well-begun,” said Commission Chair Wilson Hess after joining the 4-1 majority that approved the consolidation proposal. “But it is only begun. There’s much work left to do.”

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

While the school’s leaders have spent recent months compiling test scores and other metrics they say prove HCA is hitting educational benchmarks, speakers at Wednesday’s public hearing focused more on the institution’s ability to provide a welcoming home for students with a wide range of identities, including those with learning disabilities, physical ailments, and mental health struggles.

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“HCA staff overall have been very inclusive to students such as myself and have kept me and other queer students feeling safe,” said sophomore Alexa Saft, who identifies as transgender. “A single sentiment has been echoed among almost all HCA students who attended public school: l can’t go back.”

More than one parent struggled to hold back tears while speaking about their children finding happiness at HCA after struggling to make friends in other settings.

“Mental health is so much more important than anything academic,” parent Jaye Kalil said. “An ‘A’ doesn’t mean anything if you want to go kill yourself.”

Several current students and recent graduates said HCA’s flexible curriculum helped them discover a passion for school by allowing them to take extra time when needed or jump grade levels to find an appropriate challenge.

State Rep. Poppy Arford was one of a handful of local politicians to support charter renewal.

“Common sense tells us that one educational model does not fit for all students, which is why alternatives, why options, are critically important for the health of our public education system and its students,” she said. “Closing any school that is working for students who might otherwise fail as we continue to face the COVID challenges of the pandemic may prove to be unwise.

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Gina Post (left), interim executive director of the Maine Charter School Commission, listens to public support for HCA with voting members Nichi Farnham (center) and Norman Higgins (right) on September 29, 2022. Other Commission members attended the hearing remotely. John Terhune / The Times Record

The seven voting members of the Charter Commission will vote on HCA’s renewal application at their October 11 meeting. Five members must support renewal, or the school will close at the end of the academic year.

Those who couldn’t attend the public hearing or didn’t have time to speak at the event can email their thoughts on HCA to the Commission at [email protected] by Friday, October 7 at 5 p.m. About 30 people have already sent in letters supporting the school, according to Commission staff.

Though the institution currently on track to fall short of enrollment goals for a third straight year, parent Sam Mathis urged the Commission to put students’ well-being ahead of strict numerical targets.

“Returning to public school is simply not an option for (my daughter),” he said. “It’s not an option for a lot of kids at HCA, and if HCA closes, they will become dropouts and all that comes with it.”

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