The Harpswell Coastal Academy Board of Directors voted 7-0 on Wednesday, March 16 to proceed with a plan to close the charter school’s Brunswick location at the end of the school year and bring all students to its Harpswell campus.
Harpswell Coastal Academy currently operates two locations. Division 1 — grades five through eight — is in the former West Harpswell School on Ash Point Road. Divisions 2 and 3 — grades nine through 12 — are in Brunswick, on the former Navy base. Division 1 has 71 students. Divisions 2 and 3 have a total of 102.
In a letter to families on March 12, Head of School Scott Barksdale explained that the school would either need to consolidate onto the Harpswell campus or close altogether.
The school’s enrollment has declined during the pandemic, according to the letter. Harpswell Coastal Academy has a target enrollment of 210 students in its charter contract with the state. It currently has 173.
“As a charter school, our funding is almost entirely dependent on our prior year’s enrollment numbers,” Barksdale said in the letter. “As enrollment declines, our budget declines.”
“So, the board will vote this Wednesday about consolidation — can we afford to maintain the staffing, facilities and operations we need in order to operate HCA on one campus — and then about if HCA needs to close at the end of this school year if it is, in fact, not sustainable moving forward,” Barksdale said.
During a Zoom meeting with about 100 people in attendance, the seven-member board heard emotional testimony from students and parents in favor of consolidation rather than closure.
Students said that they struggled in traditional schools for a variety of reasons before thriving at Harpswell Coastal Academy, where they found an inclusive environment and support for their individual needs.
Sam Kemos, a senior, said that music is a big part of his life. But before coming to Harpswell Coastal Academy, he didn’t play at all.
“I didn’t play an instrument. I didn’t have the courage to pick one up. I was a really quiet, nervous and anxious kid,” Kemos said. “This school has given me my life. I know it’s given a lot of other kids their lives as well, and I really, seriously love each and every person that goes to HCA.”
Mae Applegate, dean of studies and students and a mother of two students at Harpswell Coastal Academy, said that her children encountered discrimination, harassment and sexism in public school. They came to HCA “hoping to find a place that we would all belong.”
“I get to be myself at HCA. I get to watch my kids be supported in being themselves at HCA, which is magical,” she said, and an experience many parents never have.
For her kids and many others at HCA, “going back to their public districts really just is not an emotionally safe alternative,” she said.
Many of the speakers volunteered to assist with fundraising and recruitment, in order to aid the short- and long-term sustainability of the school.
After hearing from numerous parents, students and teachers, the board and administration discussed how to proceed. Barksdale said that if the school can raise enrollment to 190 and maintain that number, it can be sustainable on a single campus.
The board unanimously approved a motion to proceed with consolidation.
Treasurer David Jean said the school will need to secure financing for improvements to the Harpswell campus. The existing building will not accommodate all students, so the school will need to bring in external classrooms, such as trailers or yurts.
Barksdale estimated that the school will need about $175,000 to make the facility changes necessary for consolidation. He said that West Harpswell School, which closed in 2011, was originally built for “just over 100” students.
Board member Peggy Muir encouraged the board and parents to “dream bigger” than $175,000. “We can dream about an endowment and we can really set our sights higher,” Muir said.
Board member Kathy Wilson said members of the school community need to continue speaking out. “Go tell your stories everywhere, because they are powerful,” she said.
Board Chair Cynthia Shelmerdine said that Harpswell Coastal Academy will need sign-off on the consolidation from the Maine Charter School Commission. She hopes to meet with the commission in April.