FAIRFIELD, Maine — Three miracles may have hit the Good Will-Hinckley school at once, but more help is needed from the Legislature if the institution’s resurgence plan is to proceed.
The school, situated on a more than 2,400-acre campus on Route 201, has been a haven for troubled and at-risk children since its founding in 1889. Its stately mix of historic and contemporary brick buildings, cottage-style residence halls and on-site farm have been mostly dormant since 2009, when most education programs ceased and more than 100 people lost their jobs.
Spurred by a state-level decision to funnel funding for at-risk youth to other venues, they were the darkest days in Good Will-Hinckley’s history.
“When we chose to shut down the residential programs in 2009, that stands out as one of the most challenging moments Good Will-Hinckley has ever faced,” said Kathryn Hunt, chairwoman of the institution’s board of directors. “There were a lot of questions about whether we would ever be able to continue.”
But then came the miracles.
The first miracle, as seen by Glenn Cummings, who took over as the school’s president last October, was borne from another educational institution’s misfortune.
Kennebec Valley Community College had no room for a much-needed expansion and saw Good Will-Hinckley as a “magnificent opportunity,” according to Maine Community College President John Fitzsimmons. Negotiations for the sale of 680 acres of Good Will-Hinckley property to KVCC are in the final stages with a closure of the sale possible in the next two months.
The second miracle, according to Cummings, was Gov. Paul LePage’s often-repeated goal of increasing career and technical education opportunities, particularly for students who for whatever reason don’t or can’t go through traditional channels. LePage has backed up his goal by requesting $730,000 a year to continue Good Will-Hinckley’s residential programs. The governor’s overall biennial budget proposal is under review by the Legislature, including a work session on the proposal Tuesday by the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.
“Governor LePage put a stake in the ground when he put us in the budget,” said Cummings, the former Maine Speaker of the House and member of President Barack Obama’s education administration.
The third miracle remains a bit of a secret, but Cummings said it involves significant funding from private donors that will bring more than one aspect of the plan to reality.
If everything works out — and Cummings said they will — the Fairfield campus will be a major component in the state’s efforts to bolster the agriculture and forestry industries. Good Will-Hinckley will become a magnet school called the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences.
Kennebec Valley Community College will take over what has been known as the “Mid Campus” and start an associate’s degree program in agriculture science. It will be Maine’s first two-year degree program in that field, according to Fitzsimmons — complete with a working farm and acres upon acres of growing fields. The expansion would make KVCC the state’s largest community college campus by size and push its enrollment from 2,500 to at least 4,000 students, said Fitzsimmons.
“It has just become one of those wonderful, glorious opportunities that just falls into your lap,” he said. “In Maine and New England we’ve moved away from producing our own food, but I think we’re going to have a U-turn. The research we’ve done is that the number of jobs available in the agriculture industry is much more than most people think.”
Cummings said the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences will be Maine’s second magnet school, with the other being Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone. A magnet school is an institution with a particular academic focus.
“We think the demand is going to be strong to come here,” said Cummings. The first class of 15 or so students is already being recruited to start this September. The re-opening of student residences, which depends on the funding in LePage’s budget proposal, would allow the enrollment to grow to 120 or more.
With the advent of the new school comes a slight shift in focus. Whereas Good Will-Hinckley was meant for troubled and at-risk youth, the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences will be more of an alternative education program for students who struggle in traditional academic settings.
Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said the concept of the school builds on LePage’s vision of Maine students earning associate’s degrees with one year of training after graduating high school.
“This is a situation where the proposal [from Good Will-Hinckley] connected on a lot of levels to what the governor has been talking about,” said Bowen. “It’s about creating a seamless system to get kids into higher education.”
A key component of the plan is for public school dollars to follow students to the magnet school. Bowen said a bill under consideration that would allow charter schools in Maine would accomplish that, though proposals to create charter schools have failed numerous times at the State House.
“The political climate has changed in Augusta,” said Bowen. “If that bill doesn’t pass, then we’re going to have to work on another means of having the money follow the child to this facility.”
Officials from the Maine Education Association, which among other groups has opposed charter schools legislation in the past, could not be reached Friday for comment.
Passage of the charter school bill, which is being sponsored by Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, likely would make the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences Maine’s first charter school, said Bowen. Mason’s bill has not yet been printed, according to the Revisor of Statutes’ office.
If the charter school bill fails, said Cummings, who opposed charter schools as a legislator, the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences would negotiate with superintendents from sending schools for the students’ tuition dollars.
Earle “Chip” Bessey, who owns a forestry and Christmas tree business near the Hinckley school, said he heartily supports the return of students. Bessey said he’ll be able to return to his years-long practice of hiring local students for seasonal work with the Christmas trees. More importantly, he said, the industries he cares most about will benefit from a new stream of skilled workers.
“It was a shock when Good Will-Hinckley closed,” said Bessey, who was also a member of LePage’s transition team. “I had several friends who were employees there who lost their jobs in the pit of the recession. That campus cries out to be put to good use. This seems to be a good investment.”