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Maine's First Charter School Opens in Hinckley
10/01/2012   Reported By: Jay Field

Educators, elected officials, non-profit leaders and students gathered in Hinckley this morning to celebrate the start of classes at the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, the state's first charter school. For years, unsuccessful efforts to bring charters to Maine frustrated their many backers. Supporters finally overcame opposition in the Legislature to these more autonomous, more experimental public schools last year. As Jay Field reports, they did it, in part, by pointing to the plan for the Maine Academy as an example of how charters can offer crucial options for certain kinds of kids.

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One of every five high school students in Maine drops out each year - we'll call them the 20 percenters. Some 20 percenters, the thinking goes, simply decide that high school has nothing to offer them. Many others though, including members of the inaugural class at the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, grapple with a more nuanced problem.

Alexander West lugs a box of freshly-harvested, yellow potatoes from the school's garden plot. "Look at them - some huge ones and some really, really tiny ones as well," he says.

West, a tall, bearded senior, thrusts his hand into a box. "Oh, man, that one's wicked squishy. Don't want that in there! Who put that squisky potato in there? It's mostly good though."

West, you may have guessed by now, is into farming. He lives on 13 acres with his family in Hartland. Last year, West went to Nokomis Regional High School in Newport. "It's an all right school. But it's not definitely not geared toward things as effectively as this place is," he says.

At the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, West will study things like local food systems and plant and soil science out in the garden or inside a greenhouse. He'll do plenty of the writing, language arts and math work that are part of the state's Common Core Standards. He just won't do all that much of it in a classroom with four walls. Students at the Maine Academy will spend only two hours a day in a traditional classroom.

"It turns out that we have lots of those kind of kids, who going home every day, really engaged in their farm, with their father and their business or mother and their business," says Glen Cummings, president and executive director at Goodwill Hinckley, "but don't have the opportunity to do that during the school day."

Forty-six kids are getting that chance this fall, Cummings says. The campus of the former home for disadvanteged boys and girls is housing the state's first charter school. Maine Academy of Natural Sciences will run on a four-day-a-week, year-round schedule.

The students, 27 of whom are boarders, come from 27 different school districts across the state. Maine law requires charters to begin classes 60 days after they get state approval. Maine Academy got the final go ahead back in July.

"I do think that we were able to provide a concrete vision of what a charter school could offer," Cummings says, "that we could offer students who are struggling with high school an opportunity to be successful, and to have that extra post-secondary option."

Back in January, Kennebec Valley Community College purchased 600 acres and 13 buildings on the Goodwill Hinckley campus as part of an expansion. Students at the Maine Academy will be required to take at least one class at Kennebec Valley and will have the option to earn even more college credits if they want.

Gov. Paul LePage made passing a charter school law a top priority when he took office. LePage included early financial support for the overhaul of the Goodwill Hinckley campus in his first budget. Stephen Bowen, Maine's Education Commissioner, says the proposal for the Maine Academy that emerged from that early work helped convinced lawmakers to support a charter school bill.

"Sometimes in Augusta you get talking about concepts and ideas and you can't really operationalize or think, 'What is that actually going to look like on the ground?' And here we had a model - it was pretty fully-fleshed out, a really thoughtful proposal we could lock on to and talk about," Bowen says.

The Maine Academy of Natural Sciences hopes to serve as many as 200 kids within five years. That ambitious goal got a boost Monday when the Harold Alfond Foundation followed through on a promise to the school, awarding it $1 million to cover some of the cost of boarding additional kids in the coming years.


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