FAIRFIELD, Maine — Some of Caleb Chadbourne’s earliest memories are of performing chores on his grandfather’s dairy farm in Palmyra, where he has been involved since he was about 3 years old.
Chadbourne is clearly comfortable in a farm setting, but until the formation of the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences or MeANS, at the former Good Will-Hinckley School in Fairfield, he never dreamed that the lines between a farm and a classroom could be so blurred. As one of the 21 Maine teens comprising the inaugural crop of students at the startup institution, the 16-year-old Chadbourne sees a chance to reinvigorate his educational career.
“My grades were slipping. There were classes being skipped. I needed to try something new,” he said.
As a MeANS student, Chadbourne will spend much of his time working in the plentiful lands that surround the former Good Will-Hinckley campus. In the course of his education he might oversee a field of crops or manage a swath of forest — both of which sound great to a student who freely admits he doesn’t like sitting in classrooms.
“I just thought it’d be a better education than I could have gotten at my regular high school,” he said.
The Good Will-Hinckley School, located south of Skowhegan on Route 201, has a long history of helping troubled and at-risk children dating back to 1889 when the Rev. George Walter Hinckley bought the Chase Farm for that purpose. The school continued in various iterations until it closed for financial reasons in 2009, leaving its mix of new and old buildings dormant.
On Tuesday, students were back at the campus for the first time since the closure. Supported by funding from the Legislature, which reopened two cottage-style residence halls, plus loans from the former school’s leftover endowment, the school hopes to attract an enrollment of 100 students per year by 2014, said Glenn Cummings, the school’s president and executive director.
“It’s not going to be a perfect fit for every kid,” said Cummings. “We had 30 applications this year and we accepted 21. We’re all hoping it just keeps on growing.”
In addition to MeANS, there are other plans in the works that could bring another 1,000 or more students to the campus. MeANS is in final negotiations with Kennebec Valley Community College for the purchase of Good Will-Hinckley’s “Mid Campus.” KVCC intends to create Maine’s first two-year degree program in agricultural science. Cummings said he expects an announcement about that transaction to happen in the coming weeks.
Emanuel Pariser, who founded and ran The Community School in Camden for 33 years and has been a vocal proponent for charter schools in Maine — which were approved by the Legislature this year after decades of failed attempts — is the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences’ co-director. He said the strategy of the school is to develop individual education plans for each student. During a morning of team-building exercises among the students Tuesday, Pariser said he already was beginning to learn which students might be leaders and which might prefer being away from the crowd.
“I’m watching to see how the group can build a learning community among each other,” he said. “At the end of this school year, I would love to have these students simply have a better sense of themselves as learners. That comes under the umbrella of just being more confident in themselves in general. If 90 percent of these students walked out of here with that at the end of the year, I’d be delighted.”
MeANS is likely to be near the top of the list of institutions in Maine that will apply for charter school status next year when the new law takes effect. Cummings said the advantage of doing that is to ensure that tuition money follows students from their traditional high schools to the charter schools. In order to remain in good financial standing, the school must have a minimum enrollment of 40 students next year, said Cummings.
For 16-year-old Alana Ketchum of Gardiner, who is one of the boarding students, there’s a lot riding on the school’s success.
“It’s just a totally different feel from a traditional high school environment,” said Ketchum, who enjoys gardening and would like to become a writer. “I wasn’t really thriving in the high school I was in. I knew I could be doing better. I figured I really needed to change something and coming to this school was that thing.”