HARPSWELL, Maine — When the nearly 60 people who attended a public hearing Friday were asked if they support a proposed charter school in town, almost every hand went up.
It was a good sign for Harpswell Coastal Academy, the charter school that could be approved by the Maine Charter School Commission in early February and begin classes by September.
HCA was the only charter school out of five proposed recently that survived initial review by the commission. The school’s board is looking at Merriconeag Grange, 529 Harpswell Neck Road, as a possible location for the first school year, board Chairman Joseph Grady said.
Heidi Sampson, the commission member leading HCA’s review team, said the public hearing on Jan. 18 had the largest turnout she has seen for a charter school.
“It’s exciting to see this kind of response from a community,” Sampson said. “It almost makes you wish you were part of a community like this.”
While many people in attendance at Cundy’s Harbor Community Hall praised the efforts made by the HCA board and spoke of the need for Harpswell to have a project-based community school, there were two who shared a few reservations.
Brad Smith, superintendent of School Administrative District 75, which includes Harpswell, Topsham and other towns that would fall within HCA’s catchment, raised concerns about how HCA will serve students with special needs.
“There are certainly a number of students for whom a project-based and a more flexible learning environment would really diminish, if not eliminate, some of the issues that can bring those kids to needing special support,” Smith said. “But disabilities are disabilities defined by law across this country, and some of the disabilities that we are seeing aren’t simply going to be managed by having more project-based or flexible learning.
“It’s not so much a concern, but I guess an encouragement to those who are working with [HCA]: a concept is that as a public school all students who apply must be served,” Smith continued. “… It’s not an option to say ‘well, the nature of your disability is such, it might be better if you didn’t come to the academy. It might be better if you were served in some other school system.’ That’s not an option; that’s discriminatory and not allowed.”
After the hearing, John D’Nieri, HCA’s consultant, said he shares Smith’s concerns and acknowledged that charter schools must live up to the same standards as public schools.
“If we can’t serve all students, then we haven’t really succeeded,” said D’Anieri, who assembled the 468-page application submitted by HCA last October.
Smith also responded to comments from supporters who said Harpswell students traditionally haven’t done well in SAD 75, and therefore need an alternative teaching environment like HCA.
“For those who are here with the perception that students from Harpswell don’t do well in our school system, I need to correct that,” Smith said. “I need you to know that simply isn’t true. It certainly isn’t true.”
To back up his claim, Smith provided current dropout rates for SAD 75 from the Maine Department of Education. Overall, it’s 2.39 percent, a rate he said compares favorably to other school districts.
Smith also provided specific statistics regarding Harpswell students in SAD 75: 28 percent are in Advanced Placement courses, 61 percent have a 3.0 GPA or higher and only 4 percent have a 1.5 GPA or lower — making Harpswell the town with the fewest lower-achieving students of SAD 75’s four towns.
Ellen Denson, a Harpswell parent who said her daughter is not doing well in SAD 75, praised HCA’s “rigorous, personalized project-based curriculum” and how it could benefit her daughter.
“I believe strongly that HCA’s theory should be available and applied to all students, especially for those who are less successful with the traditional methods that we have been going to historically for the standards of education,” Denson said.
Jennifer Nadeau, a Harpswell resident who was accompanied by her 3-year-old daughter, Mia, and 1-year-old son, Hudson, also spoke highly of the proposed charter school for being “place-based” and offering the idea “to figure out what [students’] contributions are going to be in the world.”
“The thing excites me the most about [HCA] is the innovation, and I know I’m not the first person to say that,” Nadeau said. “But as someone who … went away and came back, so much of our conversation in the state is ‘how do we keep people in Maine and how do we bring them back?’ … and I think HCA is poised so well to educate the people not only who might go away and come back, but the people who are going to stay here for generations.”
Kay Ogrodnik, an SAD 75 school board member who said she was speaking on her own behalf, challenged the suggestion that a charter school will take money away from SAD 75.
“When somebody drops out, there’s no money there. So I think that the threat that ‘it’s going to ruin our SAD 75 schools’ is bogus because there are students that need a different kind of education,” she said. “I’m totally enthusiastic about good education at SAD 75, but there is this coastal area … that needs a different kind of education.”
D’Anieri and HCA board members said they were impressed with the turnout of the public hearing, which followed a lengthy public interview that morning, but there’s still a lot of work ahead.
The work includes modifying the application based on recent changes made by HCA, including the school’s projected capacity of 60 students for fall 2013, up from 40 in the original application.
The commission will make its final decision on HCA on Feb. 5. Sampson said her three-member review team, which did not find any major problems with the application, will give its recommendation to the commission, which, in turn, will then approve, conditionally approve or deny a charter contract for HCA.
As part of its process, the commission will take into account comments from the public hearing, along with letters and email messages it has received.