The dream of a Cornville charter school coming true

By Alex Barber, BDN Staff
Posted July 23, 2012, at 7:51 p.m.

CORNVILLE, Maine — School consolidation has been a sore spot for some in Cornville.

When Cornville Elementary School was shut down after the 2010 school year, a group of people set out to start a charter school.

Two years later, that dream is being realized.

“Obviously a group of parents and teachers were upset [about closing the school],” said Justin Belanger, chairman of the Cornville Regional Charter School founding board and now executive director of the school. “We formed a group to try to save the school.”

Belanger said he lobbied the Legislature successfully to have charter schools in Maine. He researched hundreds of charter schools across the country and even in Finland. Last Tuesday, the Charter School Commission overturned a previous denial by voting to allow the Cornville charter school to open, along with Baxter Academy in Portland. The Cornville application received the five necessary votes on July 17 after the board was deadlocked at 3-3 during the July 2 vote.

“We got approved not just to open the school, but to start a school of our dreams,” said Belanger.

“I’m sure it’s going to make the families there very, very happy,” said Lynda Quinn, a Somerset County commissioner who represents Skowhegan and Cornville.

The Cornville Regional Charter School will occupy the former Cornville Elementary School building on the West Ridge Road. It has seven classrooms, a gym, a kitchen, a playground and seven acres of land that includes a baseball diamond and soccer field.

It will initially house grades K-6, with plans to add seventh and eighth grades in the future.

Belanger said the town of Cornville will have a special town meeting on Thursday at which residents will be asked to sell the building to the Cornville Regional Charter School Board for $1.

The next step before opening is negotiating and signing a contract with the Charter School Commission. The contract is good for five years, with an extension evaluation conducted during the fourth year. The school also is evaluated every year to gauge student progress.

Belanger said he anticipates that the contract will be signed before the end of the month. The school cannot open until 60 days after the contract is signed. The school is scheduled to open Oct. 1.

Belanger explained that Cornville’s new school will be different from traditional schools around the state.

“We have blocks of time for math, language arts, social studies and science all at the same time [among the different grades],” said Belanger. “Everyone from K-6 will be having math at the same time. It’s proficiency-based. If a fourth-grader is proficient in math, they can pop in with a group of fifth-graders [for math]. Nobody’s held back and nobody gets lost.”

The school day will be an hour longer than most, said Belanger, so children can have two 30-minute recesses. One will be more structured, like gym, while the other will be like an outdoor recess.

Science and social studies will have projects that the entire school will take part in.

“Say you’re studying Africa; you can have the K-6 all doing a project on Africa,” said Belanger. “They all do different things, but they’re working together.”

Each student will have a personal learning plan that will assess his or her progress and can be adjusted accordingly.

As of Monday, 60 students have applied to attend the school.

“That’s perfect,” said Belanger. “We based our budget with a minimum amount of kids at 45. Sixty is good. We’d like to have the whole 120. That’s our total capacity.”

Each student in Maine is provided a certain amount of money from the state, and that money follows the student to any school. However, money from cities and towns stays with the school district, so a charter school doesn’t receive any tax money from municipalities. That money has to be made up in other ways, said Belanger.

“The rest of the money will hopefully come from foundations and grants,” he said, adding that the school is listed as a nonprofit. “We’re looking for money wherever we can find it to make up that difference.”

Belanger explained that a charter school can only take up to 10 percent of students from any grade level in a school district. In Cornville’s case, that would be SAD 54, centered in neighboring Skowhegan.

“It will be a monetary loss [for SAD 54], and it will be difficult for them,” said Belanger, who added that charter schools, like any school in Maine, have to accept all students who apply. “So we’re not getting the cream of the crop. We’re taking everybody.”

SAD 54 Superintendent Brent Colbry didn’t immediately return a phone call from the Bangor Daily News on Monday seeking comment.

Cornville Regional Charter School also will work closely with another charter school, Maine Academy of Natural Sciences at Good-Will Hinckley, which also will open in the fall.

“Because they’re doing the high school, we’re going to be coordinating with them. I think it will benefit both of us,” said Belanger. “They’re agricultural-based, so if one kid wants to be a dairy farmer, their kids can teach our kids how to be a dairy farmer.

“We can offer them the students for their students to teach, and we can also offer them future students [for enrollment],” he said.

In addition to traditional courses, the Cornville school will offer gardening, composting, recycling and American Sign Language, said Jana Lapoint, chairwoman of the Charter School Commission.

The school is looking to hire four teachers with its current student count at 60. A special education teacher and education technician also will be hired.

“We’re going to try to keep a 15 to 1 ratio [of students to teachers],” said Belanger, who added that interest in teaching at the school has come from all over the world.

“We’ve been getting a lot of attention internationally. We’ve had teachers apply from Canada, Russia, Poland and the U.S.,” he said. “It’s kind of cool for a little school in Cornville to be drawing that kind of interest.”

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/07/23/news/mid-maine/the-dream-of-a-cornville-charter-school-coming-true/ printed on September 30, 2014