Groups looking to start charter schools in Maine share plans with state

Posted May 18, 2012, at 6:41 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Nine organizations hoping to win state charters for new schools have filed letters of intent with the Maine Charter School Commission, meeting the May 16 deadline. Full applications are due with the commission by June 29.

Maine law recently was amended to allow charter schools, which are public schools that have more flexibility than traditional schools in curriculum, instruction, staffing and finance, according to the state Department of Education. Forty-one states have similar enabling laws. The schools often focus on an educational theme or aim to serve a particular kind of student.

One of the nine applicants is the Rural Aspirations Project, based in the Waldo County community of Monroe. The concept is the brainchild of Korah Soll, 38, of Swanville, a Unity College graduate who has worked 15 years in alternative education at Mount View High School in Thorndike and in the Zenith program at Camden Hills Regional High School. Both programs aim to identify and keep likely dropouts in school.

Soll’s group also includes Eric Kormann of Thorndike, who has worked in alternative, traditional and special education, she said Friday. Rural Aspirations Project has secured nonprofit status.

The school her group envisions would enroll about 25 students who may be at risk of dropping out, she said. The student profile would be someone who has struggled in traditional public school.

Soll plans to use a traditional curriculum for half the day, then use the second part of the day to allow students to explore areas they wish to investigate.

“We feel we could be more efficient with their time,” she said.

Soll has a tentative plan to operate the alternative school in the vacant Monroe General Store. She envisions students studying and perhaps running a general store, which would encourage residents of the small town to stop by and engage with students. The group’s website shows an early 20th century photo of the Monroe store building.

Soll grew up in Canaan, a small town near Skowhegan. In many rural Maine towns, she said, community centers such as general stores are closing, eliminating a vital hub where teens and older adults might mingle. Students could network in such a setting with farmers, artists, entrepreneurs and others as they operate a business, she said.

“We want this to be a model for other rural areas,” she said.

The other eight applicants for charter schools are: Baxter Academy of Technology and Science, Portland; Cornville Regional Charter School; Maine Academy of Natural Science, based at the Good Will-Hinckley School in Fairfield; Monson Academy; Fiddlehead Art & Science School, Gray; and John Jenkins Leadership Academy, Maine Connections Academy and Maine Virtual Academy, all online schools.

Maine law provides for 10 schools to be granted state charters in the next 10 years. A second request for proposals will be posted in late August.

Local school boards, however, also can authorize charter schools. Those charter schools must exist within the school board’s jurisdiction or can be created when school boards join together to create a specialty school.

Jim Banks, chairman of the seven-member commission that will review the nine charter applications, said the review criteria will include each applicant’s goals and vision, curriculum, the makeup of the nonprofit group and its budget and funding plans.

The commission includes members with varied backgrounds, Banks said.

Banks served nearly 20 years on the Portland School Committee and five years on the state Board of Education. Other members include a current and a former school superintendent, a retired teacher, two retired from the business world and those with backgrounds in private education and special education. The commission also will use outside experts to evaluate the applications.

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