The Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Hinckley has won approval as the first charter school in Maine history, but it has a big step left: negotiating a charter with the Maine Charter School Commission.
The charter contract determines bedrock elements of the school: what the academic and operational outcomes should be and how to measure whether they have been met. A balancing act is required, as the state must be able to hold the school accountable to realistic measurements. But the school must also be allowed to have the autonomy necessary to apply its experiential learning programs in agriculture and forestry.
The success of the school, located on the former Good Will-Hinckley campus, is proposed to be measured by whether students are meeting targets in academic proficiency and growth, attendance, behavior, graduation rates and community engagement. When the commission members gather soon to consider each benchmarks’ specifics, they should ensure that they are reasonable and reproducible. They might also consider looking at what other schools have accomplished in order to determine whether the goals are realistic.
It’s important for Mainers to be informed about the process, not just because public funding is involved. The school’s progress plan may become an example for other schools that want to replicate how it helps at-risk students. Or maybe schools will be interested in how it implements its proficiency-based model, which measures academic achievement by whether students have met certain standards. Parents across the state should be paying attention to whether this school is a place where their child might succeed.
The school is proposing a variety of measures by which to judge performance. It’s aiming for the number of students deemed proficient in certain subjects to be 10 percent below the state average. In year one, it wants 50 percent of students to increase by one grade level or more in language arts and math and 25 percent to increase by at least three-quarters of a grade level in language arts and math. It wants 90 percent re-enrollment annually, a four-year graduation rate of 85 percent and fewer than 10 reports of bullying or harassment in year one.
It’s important to remember that many of these students were at risk of dropping out of their traditional public schools. Keeping them in school and focused on real-world learning is doing not only them, but Maine, a big service. The school must meet Common Core and Maine Learning Results expectations, but there is the flexibility for students to apply the academic lessons they learn about things like farming and small-business entrepreneurship. They also have the option to co-enroll with nearby Kennebec Valley Community College, creating a greater likelihood they will pursue higher education after graduation.
There’s no way around the fact that public money follows the students from their traditional school to the charter school. Some Mainers think it’s unfortunate for school districts to be losing the money, but the most important thing to consider here is the well-being of the students, in both the public and charter schools. If a traditional school is failing some students, the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences wants to make sure they don’t fall through the cracks. Preventing students from dropping out of high school is likely to save society more money in the long run, such as through higher wages earned.
The school has many more proposals for how to track student mastery and involve students in the community through internships, work study or job shadows. It wants parents or guardians involved in a specific number of student-led conferences and teachers to pursue professional development. The state commission has final say, however. May it be fair and far-sighted.