On Charter Schools in Maine
By Susan Conley
Photographs by Matt Cosby
“The promise of public charter schools is legit. And the threat is legit. It depends on how you do it.” John D’Anieri, Harpswell Coastal Academy
It’s no secret that charter schools are a hot potato in Maine, one that our politicians will still be tossing around long after the Aroostook County harvest is over. A lot of the debate about charter schools circles around how they’re financed. Charters receive public funding but are formed and operated by parents, teachers and community leaders and don’t adhere to many of the public school district rules and regulations. The Maine Education Association and the Maine Principals Association are generally opposed to charters. They argue that traditional public schools have a hard time absorbing the financial hit when their students leave for a charter. Charter school advocates say that they’re offering a long-needed, more individualized education option to Maine’s overcrowded and underfunded public classrooms.
This fall there were more charter schools in Maine experiencing first-day-of-school jitters than ever before. Count five of them now, with five more pending approval from the Maine Charter School Commission—each of them a different flavor, but all calling themselves alternatives to Maine’s traditional public school education.
It’s day one at the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences (MeANS), which sits on the site of the former Good Will-Hinckley School in the tiny town of Fairfield, north of Augusta. At 2:00 in the afternoon I’m standing in a muddy clearing next to an open field with Glenn Cummings, passionate executive director of MeANS, gazing at the school’s three brand-new greenhouses—one for raised-bed vegetables, one for aquaponics, and one for flowers. Cummings, the previous speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, says MeANS is in its second year as a charter, and that it’s all about hands-on, agriculture-based approaches to learning.
Sixty-five students enrolled in MeANS this year, and the waitlist grows. The school operates under three curriculum themes: agriculture, forestry, and environmental studies. Cummings says that at MeANS the focus is on “kids who may not be thriving in their old schools.”
Zoe Keiper, a sophomore, has come to see the new greenhouses with us. She has a warm smile and a quick mind and says she came to MeANS because she didn’t fit in her old school, a place where her teachers often said, “sit down and do the work, it doesn’t matter if you understand it.” Zoe felt bad about herself in school. She could never do all the homework: “I had to stand in front of my class of 30 students and tell them that I couldn’t understand the work.”
On the day that she and her father pulled up to her new dormitory at MeANS—one of several cottage-style houses dotting the campus–she looked at the looming woods behind her cottage and said to her dad, “I’m going to get eaten by bears.” The campus resembles a farm more than a high school, with rolling hills, a handful of cottages and classroom buildings, and then those aforementioned woods. Bears were not out of the question. But Zoe took to her new school quickly: “even the curriculum interested me here. I never thought I could be that curious. We’re outside half the day.”
Zoe and Cummings and I take a walk towards the basketball court and meet Kiernan Shell, a brand-new junior at MeANS, who’s heading back to his dorm from the school’s community garden carrying fresh-picked carrots and corn. The garden is an education hub at MeANS, as well as a source of a lot of the school’s food. Kiernan starts eating a piece of raw corn, and says he hopes to spend many hours in the garden.
Now Zoe leads us to the chicken coop, where she kneels down next to the brood and says, “You end up having a passion for something you never expected here. Projects are very fun when you’re living in the woods, far away from your friends. And my principal, Emanuel? He’s awesome.”
Awesome and principal used in the same sentence? I need to go find this Emanuel, or “E-Man,” as Zoe calls him. His real name is Emanuel Pariser, the well-spoken director of MeANS, who previously ran the Community School, Maine’s first alternative high school, in Camden for close to 35 years. He says, “We are working with kids here who have been disenchanted or disengaged with school. It’s a big task to capture their imagination again. How do we make them feel confident again so they think they can really learn?”
The faculty mantra at MeANS is to “hang in there with students. We try to do whatever we can to help them have a better sense of who they are and what it is they’re interested in. What are they curious about? We spend so much time and effort on building a sense of community here so kids feel like they belong and have a meaningful role.”
My next stop lies south: Portland’s new Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, where it’s already day six of school. Michelle LaForge, the head of school, is at an off-site visit, but Carl Stasio, Baxter’s executive director, who ran Thornton Academy for over two decades, kindly takes me on a tour of the building. I ask him about the school’s self-described mission as a “rigorous, college-prep high school focused on science, technology, engineering, and math,” otherwise known as STEM.
Stasio says they have a group of eager learners on their hands at Baxter, with over 125 enrolled students. Many of them swarm the stairwells and halls while Stasio and I talk. We stop at an engineering lab where I remark on the paint job (bright pink) and the gleaming equipment. He says the color scheme only gets bolder the further into the school we go. Then he laughs and points to the sleek new IKEA desks and tables and chairs and says, “Day three of school around here was spent assembling furniture.” If you’ve ever tried to put together an IKEA table on your own, then you know it’s a project in complex geometry and patience.
Next I sit with Sarah Cartmell and Lyndsey Bolduc, two ninth-grade girls at Baxter, in a newly retrofitted science lab. Sarah says she came to Baxter for the education but also “to make new friends.” She’s excited about her new school because there’s much less emphasis on tests than at her old school and, she adds, “I love science, which is part of the STEM program here. I might decide to be a surgeon.”
Lyndsey has come to Baxter because of the size: “My old high school is huge. This place obviously isn’t, and I think you can learn more in small classes.” I ask both girls if the teaching style feels different at Baxter. Lindsey nods and says, “There’s much more one-on-one with the teacher.”
The school is nestled in the heart of Portland’s historic downtown, on the edge of the Old Port, with views of the working harbor. Was it a hard decision for Lyndsey to come? She shakes her head emphatically and says, “I love the Old Port. When I go there, I can smell the ocean.”
For Sarah the decision was tougher, but her old school did a lot of testing: “it was ‘learn it one day get tested the next.’” Sarah doesn’t test “particularly well,” so coming to Baxter feels better to her than sitting in the old class and “failing.”
I say goodbye to the girls and walk the hall to another pristine classroom, this one with bright magenta walls. Kids are everywhere, most of them with chrome laptops. Some work alone at tables, others look at screens together. I meet Ryder Kalway, who went to a huge public high school before he came to Baxter. His new school represents a seismic change, and he echoes his classmate Lyndsey almost to the word when he says, “I like that the teachers are going to be able to have one-on-one with kids.” I think I’m now detecting a theme.
Ryder’s favorite class at Baxter so far? He takes one in the mornings called music ensemble. He says he’s never been in a band class like this before: “There’s a drum circle, and we actually talk about what we’re going to play as a group. My old school was much more strict. There were over 30 kids in my band class and the teacher had a difficult time, which I can understand. But I’m getting really into music class here.”
The social piece feels really different for Ryder at Baxter too. At his old school he says, “I couldn’t find kids who were interested in the things I was. Here I can find kids who have the same sense of humor as me. The other reason I really wanted to come here is because it’s in the city. I live in a really rural place. So being in a city where I can walk is great.”
After Ryder heads to class, I find Adam Burk, the energetic, bespectacled chief operating officer at Baxter, who says, “the core of the approach at Baxter is creativity. The school will expose kids to lots of cutting edge technology and practices.” Burk comes to Baxter after working with farm-to-school and restorative justice programs around Portland, as well as bringing the Ted Talk platform to Maine through TedxDirigo. He says that this first class of Baxter kids is a “wonderful mix of students from more than 30 towns. Some are coming for STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) particularly; some are coming because here they are seen, heard, and taught how to drive learning for themselves.”
Now I drive north to the Harpswell Coastal Academy, where it’s day six all over again. This is another new charter school that sits way down the neck of Harpswell in an old elementary school on a quiet, rural road. The mission here feels very different—the focus is on agriculture and marine sciences, the heart and soul of the town of Harpswell itself.
I get to meet some of the new students right away: Lilia Simmons, Brittany Coffin, and Mandy Hawkes. We sit in what looks like a science classroom with the classic cinder blocks and the industrial wall-to-wall carpet. What strikes them about their new school? Mandy says, “we’ve been out in the field already twice, mapping Stover’s Cove,” and she loves being outside the classroom.
Brittany adds, “It’s a lot easier to comprehend things here when the teachers involve you and aren’t just talking at you.”
Lilia explains, “Here you get to do things in the community. At Stover’s Cove we’re trying to gather population data on things like rocks and plants and snails.” In fact the kids at Harpswell Coastal Academy go on so many trips outside school that the word fieldtrip isn’t even used. Expeditions are part of the daily fabric, and the “fieldwork” is the school’s bread and butter.
Each of the three girls comes from a big public middle school with large classes—26 to 30 kids in a room. Lilia says, “In big groups some kids don’t feel comfortable sharing thoughts. Here at Harpswell there are so many people asking questions.” There’s also a no-homework rule at Harpswell Coastal (unless “you’re slacking off”), and this is very exciting news for Lilia and Mandy and Brittany.
The head of school, John D’Anieri, walks into the classroom with his lunch. He’s proud that the school serves local healthy meals. Right now he’s eating a plate of what he calls the “most delicious lasagna.” He’s done school start ups before. He helped create Poland High School with the then-principal Derek Pierce, and went on with Pierce to Casco Bay High Expeditionary High School in Portland to help launch that school as well.
D’Anieri says, “there are a whole lot of ways to reinvent public schools and in Maine in particular. Because once you get outside of Portland and Lewiston and Bangor in Maine, we’re going to need small schools of 100-200 kids to be viable. These schools are going to need to be tied to their communities and not be so top-heavy.”
The two themes of investigation at Harpswell Coastal this year are mapping and food systems, and they often overlap. The kids map the mud flats that surround their town, which in turn teaches them about food systems. Students also create their own recipes for lunch, some of which will even make it on to the school menu. “Food is chemistry,” D’Anieri says. “This school is not a way to do the fun stuff and skip the academics. This is about doing the fun stuff as a way to get to academic stuff.”
He adds, “States that have well thought out charter schools will see charters quickly become part of the landscape. I honestly think the jury is out in Maine. Will public charter schools create another way to do public school well or will they just be a small, boutique thing?” He points to Casco Bay High School: “so many different kids feel comfortable there. And if you’re comfortable, you learn better.” It’s no surprise that size is also a priority to D’Anieri: “smallness matters. So we like that we are small. But we do the same thing that every public school in Maine does: reading and writing and arithmetic.”
Today the five existing Maine charter schools include MeANS, Baxter, Harpswell, and also the Cornville Regional Charter School and the Fiddlehead School of Arts and Sciences in Gray. Seven more schools have applied for the five remaining spots, but not without controversy, because there’s a very small pie of education money to be divided among Maine schools.. Every time a local student chooses to attend a charter school, the existing public school in town loses its per-pupil funding for that child, and in addition, the town has to pay tuition money for that same student to attend the charter. The rest of the slices get a little smaller. There’s a worry among many public school educators I spoke with that there’s not enough pie to go around.
Walk into any Maine public school or charter school today, and you’re likely to find deeply passionate, innovative teachers there—teachers who bring all their energy and commitment to school with them every day. D’Anieri is one of them. Just before I leave he tells me one last thing: “The promise of public charter schools is legit. And the threat is legit. It depends on how you do it. Are you focusing on kids who haven’t found success and need an alternative? Or are you taking kids who are probably going to be just fine anyway?” His students are clamoring at the door now. It’s time for D’Anieri to teach.