Harpswell Coastal Academy will continue to plan for the consolidation of its two campuses into one, despite a delay in state approval for the move.

            On Wednesday, April 13, the Harpswell Coastal Academy Board of Directors voted 7-0 to move forward with consolidation. The vote capped four weeks of plot twists in the charter school’s bid to stay open.

On March 16, the board voted to consolidate to the Harpswell location. School officials said that a pandemic-driven decline in enrollment had left it with a choice to consolidate or close. The consolidation was subject to approval from the Maine Charter School Commission.

On April 1, school officials said they expected the Charter School Commission to reject the consolidation plan in accordance with its staff’s recommendation. If it did, they said, the board would “have no choice” but to close HCA at the end of the school year.

On April 12, at a meeting of the Charter School Commission, members appeared swayed in HCA’s favor after hearing testimony from students and families. Only one of six members expressed outright opposition to consolidation.

But the commission agreed that it wanted more details about the plan and voted 4-2 to defer a decision to its May meeting. HCA Head of School Scott Barksdale said the delay would make it difficult for the school to enroll students and retain staff.

The commission also deferred Harpswell Coastal Academy’s application to seek a loan for consolidation costs. The school plans to bring in three yurts and add parking spaces. It has secured $92,000 in pledges for the work, according to the April 8 school newsletter.

The roller-coaster series of votes and recommendations culminated Wednesday, with the HCA board’s vote to press forward. “Let the record show that we are not giving up,” board Chair Cynthia Shelmerdine said.

Harpswell Coastal Academy operates one location in the former West Harpswell School, which it owns; and one on the former naval base in Brunswick. Grades five through eight attend school in Harpswell, grades nine through 12 in Brunswick.

Problems go beyond enrollment

            At the commission’s meeting on Tuesday, Executive Director Jeremy Jones outlined concerns about Harpswell Coastal Academy that contributed to the staff’s recommendation against the consolidation plan. Reports by the commission’s staff — one on a midyear meeting with school officials and two regarding the school’s requests for consolidation and financing — further detail those concerns.

            The problems include failure “to meet academic progress measures”; a “high rate of chronic absenteeism”; and financial issues, such as a $130,000 error in this year’s budget, according to the reports.

            In nine years of operation, Harpswell Coastal Academy has never hit the enrollment targets in its charter contract. One commission report says the school has 184 students, 26 shy of the 210 target — but school officials said in March that enrollment has dropped to 173.

            In the 2019-2020 school year, HCA was as close as it has come to its target, with 195 students against a target of 200. The COVID-19 pandemic arrived in March 2020.

            HCA’s rate of chronic absenteeism is highest in 10th grade, at 76%, according to the reports. Barksdale placed the schoolwide number at 44%. A student is chronically absent if they miss 10% or more of school days.

Consolidation to the Harpswell campus “will likely exacerbate the already troubling chronic absenteeism rates,” commission staff said in one report, because students will have a longer commute.

Jones also expressed concern about staff morale and turnover, and about the adequacy of the Harpswell campus to serve the entire student population.

‘More than its quantifiable parts’

            Harpswell Coastal Academy’s application for consolidation defended the school as essential to a community of vulnerable students, referencing supportive letters from students and parents.

            “The story they tell is of students who did not learn, did not feel safe or accepted, did not find themselves, until they came to HCA,” the school wrote. “It is clear that we are essential to our community. The small size of the school, and the caring attention of our dedicated faculty, have transformed students’ lives, giving them self-confidence and helping them learn and succeed.”

            Current and former students, as well as families and staff, delivered testimony at the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting. More than 100 people attended in person or by Zoom.

            “HCA is a safe place for a lot of students,” said Mae Applegate, dean of studies and students. “Many of them are part of the LGBTQ-plus community and neurodivergent.”

            “Our school is a place where students feel seen and valued as individuals, and I wish there was a clearer way that we could show you that with numbers and graphs,” Applegate said. “HCA is more than its quantifiable parts.”

            Alumnus and teacher Karli Jo Clark said that she enrolled at HCA for her sophomore year of high school. Without HCA, she said, she would have dropped out. Instead, she took college classes and landed internships while still in high school.

            “There is no way, without the school, I would have gone to a single college class, let alone got an accelerated bachelor’s degree in a matter of 2 1/2 years,” Clark said.

            “It’s easy to place judgment on the attendance at the school without looking at where students were beforehand,” Clark said. “I was a student who never, ever went to school and it turned around for me in a matter of a year and that’s what I see with my students.”

            The founding executive director of the Maine Charter School Commission, Bob Kautz, also spoke in favor of allowing HCA to consolidate. Kautz said he broke a personal rule against commenting on his former employer’s business because “this was too important to sit silent.”

            Kautz acknowledged that Harpswell Coastal Academy “hasn’t had great success” meeting state standards in some areas, but said it has had “fabulous success” with changing kids’ lives.

            “That school is dealing with the whole child — not just the acquisition of credits, but dealing with how to live life, how to be more successful in life, how to look at themselves with pride,” Kautz said. “I think they deserve to have the chance to do this.”

Change in leadership

            If Harpswell Coastal Academy does stay open, it will enter the next school year with new leadership. Barksdale announced in the school’s April 8 newsletter that he will resign effective June 30 after five years at HCA and three as head of school.

            “I will be taking a sabbatical year to catch my breath, spend time with my family and figure out how I want to spend the next 15 years of my career as an educator,” he said in the newsletter.

            Mel Christensen Fletcher, team leader for grades nine through 12, will become interim head of school. Applegate, the dean of studies and students, will become principal.