Harpswell Coastal Academy hopes the school community will turn out for a public hearing on Thursday, Sept. 29, to support its application for charter renewal.

The hearing will take place from 4:30-6 p.m. at the school, 9 Ash Point Road, Harpswell, and by Zoom. The Maine Charter School Commission will decide whether to renew the school’s charter for five years during a meeting at 1 p.m. on Oct. 11.

If the Charter School Commission does not renew Harpswell Coastal Academy’s charter, the school would close at the end of the 2022-23 school year.

“It is of the utmost importance that our full community is represented at this event to demonstrate the impact that HCA has on students, families, and the community,” interim Head of School Mel Christensen Fletcher said in a letter to the school community. “This is our last chance for new and returning commission members to hear directly from HCA students, families, staff, and partners about the essential role our school plays in the community!”

The renewal process follows Harpswell Coastal Academy’s consolidation from two campuses to one — its original location in the former West Harpswell School. The Maine Charter School Commission approved HCA’s consolidation plan with a 4-1 vote in May, despite concerns about absenteeism, enrollment and finances.

“At that time, we communicated to the commission that HCA is a safe and accepting learning community where students are able to belong and thrive, and that we are an important school option in the communities we serve,” Christensen Fletcher said in the letter. “This fall, we need to continue sharing that message and help the commission build a stronger understanding of what academic success and growth look like for HCA students.”

The letter highlights successes at HCA, including increases of 30% and 20% in the number of students meeting their growth goals in math and language, respectively, on the NWEA assessment; and 100% of students participating in at least one postsecondary readiness activity, such as early college, an internship, or a vocational course.

HCA’s 40-page application for renewal goes into more detail about its mission and the challenges it brings.

“Learning at HCA is project-based and place-based, grounding students in a purposeful exploration of the natural and human worlds,” the school’s mission statement says, in part.

From the beginning in 2013, the school’s goal was to raise graduation rates for students who struggle in traditional public schools, and to prepare those students for success after high school.

“Our special education population has varied from 20-40% from year to year, often double the state average,” the application states. “We also support a disproportionately large population of students who live with mental health challenges, trauma, or difficult situations at home.”

The usual measures of academic success do not always capture the progress and achievement of Harpswell Coastal Academy students, the school says.    

The application boasts of higher graduation rates for students who take more than four years to complete high school, higher graduation rates for students with disabilities, and lower drop-out rates than state averages. During the last five years, 93% of HCA students with disabilities graduated in four to six years. The state average was 80%.

“Students graduate from HCA having experienced a transformation in their education. Not every student graduates with the intention of going to college or with high standardized test scores, but our students do leave with an improved sense of their self-worth and their role in the broader community,” the application states. “HCA students learn that they have a variety of opportunities ahead of them as adults, and develop the skills they’ll need to work towards their next personal, career, or educational goals.”

The Charter School Commission raised concerns about chronic absenteeism during consolidation talks, but the application says problems with absenteeism often begin at another school and improve when students transfer to HCA. This year, HCA has adopted a new model to address absenteeism.

The application acknowledges “unexpected financial setbacks” in 2021-22, including a budget error by a former director of finance and the need for “a substantial amount of work” at its Brunswick building “to bring it up to code.”

Now, the school’s budget projections show that it will end each of the next three years with a positive balance, even after increases in salaries, benefits, and other expenses.

The state funds charter schools based on enrollment. HCA has 172 students in grades five through 12, with enrollment open for all grades except eighth and 12th.

The school plans to increase enrollment to at least 190 by the 2024-25 school year and 200 by 2025-26. Enrollment ranged from 195-205 from 2016-2020, but dropped during the pandemic.

The application also shows that the school has weathered extraordinary turnover in the last year — five of five administrators and 15 of 18 teachers left HCA at the end of the 2021-22 school year.

“Turnover at the end of the 2021-22 school year was driven by the uncertainty about the future of the school at a time when our staff had already been pushed by the pandemic and loss within our school community,” the application states. But the “vast majority” of departing employees say the environment is “positive and supportive,” and the school has “taken steps to provide more competitive compensation and retirement benefits.”

In an email, Christensen Fletcher said the school is back at full staff. “We are thrilled with the passion and experience that our new team brings, and think it’s a testament to the mission of the school that we were able to hire such a wonderful group of educators at a time when many schools are struggling to hire teachers and staff.”

Those who wish to comment but cannot attend Thursday’s hearing can submit comments in writing to mcsc@maine.gov until 5 p.m. on Oct. 6.