September 3, 2013

Maine charter schools break new ground

The state will have five of the schools when three more open this week, overcoming some continued opposition.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Three new charter schools will open this week, bringing the total statewide to five, just two years after Gov. Paul LePage signed legislation making Maine the 41st state to allow them.

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Cody Buzzell, 17, stands in the shadow of Moody Chapel as a rainbow shines over the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences during the charter school’s first commencement event, held last month at the former Good Will-Hinckley School campus in Fairfield.

Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

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Elementary teacher Kimberly Jordan organizes materials as she prepares for opening day at the Fiddlehead School of Arts & Sciences in Gray.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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"To have five schools open is incredibly exciting," said Roger Brainerd, executive director of the Maine Association for Charter Schools.

Charter school operators say they are excited -- as are their students and families -- to have an alternative to traditional public schools.

"Parents are really passionate about taking care of their kids and giving their kids the best opportunity, and they'll fight for it," said Justin Belanger, executive director of Cornville Regional Charter School, which opened last year for 60 students in kindergarten through sixth grade.

The other charter school that opened last year was the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, known as MeANS, located at the former Good Will-Hinckley School in Fairfield.

The three new schools opening this fall are Baxter Academy for Technology and Science in Portland, Fiddlehead School for Arts & Sciences in Gray, and Harpswell Coastal Academy.

A total of 392 students are enrolled in the schools, ranging from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. The largest, Baxter Academy, has 135 students. Fiddlehead School is the smallest, with 42 students.

Each school serves different ages and has a unique educational philosophy, but there are common threads. All emphasize student-led instruction and hands-on project work, and charter school backers emphasize that the schools are meant to serve as an alternative to local schools -- not to mirror them.

MeANS, Fiddlehead, Cornville and Harpswell all have significant environmental learning components, while Baxter places an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math -- or STEM -- and will teach Mandarin Chinese.

CHARTERS EMBROILED IN POLITICS

Even though the law authorizing charter schools is established, there continues to be vigorous debate about the pros and cons of the schools -- as well as their financing.

Maine's charter schools receive public funding but are formed and operated by parents, teachers and community leaders, and are exempt from many of the rules and regulations that apply to public school districts. They have become a partisan issue in Maine, strongly backed by LePage and conservative groups, and opposed by some legislators and others who want to protect funding for traditional public schools.

Brainerd, who worked to open charter schools in Maine for more than 20 years before LePage and the Republican-controlled Legislature got the law enacted, said he wished the schools weren't being so politicized.

"We're not looking forward to the next (legislative) session," Brainerd said. "If it's possible, we need to get this out of the political arena. ... But right now we are in a time that is very contentious."

Organizations such as the Maine Education Association, the Maine Principals' Association, the Maine School Superintendents Association and the Maine School Boards Association have generally opposed the charter schools, arguing they drain off critical funds from traditional public schools for unproven results.

FUNDING STILL CONTENTIOUS ISSUE

The funding formula has been the most hotly debated aspect of charter schools, particularly since the first two charter schools are in the same area. Regional School Unit 54 in Skowhegan, located between Cornville Regional Charter School and MeANS, expects to lose $1 million over two years because of students leaving the district for the charter schools.

The loss in just the first year, Superintendent Brent Colbry said, has been "devastating." He told the Legislature's Education and Cultural Affairs Committee that the funding loss is leading to "the elimination of staff, programs, supplies, extracurricular activities, books (and) technology for the remaining 2,600-plus students in our district."

(Continued on page 2)

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At the Fiddlehead School of Arts & Sciences, The Courtyard space is a multipurpose great room that also will serve as the cafeteria, said Executive Director Jacinda Cotton-Castro.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

  


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