Harpswell Coastal Academy students and alumni, along with parents and other supporters, made their case for renewing the school’s state charter during a public hearing before the Maine Charter School Commission on Thursday, Sept. 29.
Every comment during the 90-minute hearing was in favor of renewal. Dozens testified in the gym at Harpswell Coastal Academy, with more participating via Zoom.
The commission will decide whether to renew the school’s charter for five years on Oct. 11. If the commission does not renew its charter, Harpswell Coastal Academy will close at the end of the school year.
The renewal process follows Harpswell Coastal Academy’s consolidation from two campuses to one — its original location in the former West Harpswell School — amid declining enrollment and financial struggles. The Charter School Commission approved Harpswell Coastal Academy’s consolidation plan with a 4-1 vote in May, despite concerns about the school’s performance.
In its application for charter renewal, the school builds its case on its success with students who struggle in traditional public schools. 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.
At Thursday’s hearing, one speaker after another shared stories to back up the statistics in the application.
Laurel Wishman started attending Harpswell Coastal Academy in 2015.
“I have struggled with my dyslexia throughout my high school and middle school career, and I’ve doubted that I can do so many things, but HCA has taught me resilience, and that just because I have a learning disability does not mean that I’m disabled,” Wishman said.
Wishman discovered a love for building at Harpswell Coastal Academy. She graduated in 2022 and enrolled at Southern Maine Community College, where she is studying construction technology.
Sam Mathis, a parent of a senior at Harpswell Coastal Academy, lives in Cumberland, across the street from one of the top public high schools in the state. But his daughter drives an hour each way to attend Harpswell Coastal Academy because her local school could not meet her needs.
“There are a lot of good school systems in Maine and plenty of schools for kids on that traditional high-school-to-college track, but there’s only one HCA, and if you close it, you’re going to be leaving a lot of kids with no place to go,” Mathis said.
Returning to public school is “not an option for a lot of kids at HCA, and if HCA closes, they will become dropouts and all that comes with it,” Mathis added.
2020 graduate Xander Rabii said he dropped out of a public high school in Massachusetts during his freshman year because of mental and physical health issues, for which the school offered little in the way of support or accommodations.
Rabii resumed high school at Harpswell Coastal Academy, where teachers worked with him to stay on track, despite frequent absences for health reasons. He graduated from HCA in 2020 with 12 college credits from dual-enrollment classes at Southern Maine Community College.
“At HCA, I found a space to exist, belong and thrive,” said Rabii, who now attends Hampshire College in Massachusetts. “My previous school made me feel inferior, like my disabilities meant I just wasn’t cut out for school — not smart enough or good enough — but my time at HCA taught me that I am capable of such amazing things. I just operate a little differently than others and that’s OK.”
Harpswell Coastal Academy sophomore Alessandra Williams said that because of her “deep connection” with her teachers, she was able to move up a grade.
“It really helped me that my school saw me and wanted to put me in a place where I felt like I belonged and I’ve thrived here and I’ve led classes, I’ve created clubs. … It feels like I’m really seen and part of my school community,” Williams said.
Senior Nolan Kalil attended public schools and tried homeschooling before landing at Harpswell Coastal Academy.
“This was the first school where I really felt like I had opportunities to do what I felt was right for me,” Kalil said. Those opportunities have included taking vocational classes and serving as a teacher’s assistant.
“The fact that I get those opportunities as a student is so special, because it makes me feel like my school trusts me,” Kalil said. “And that’s a really big thing for a lot of students that come here. There’s a big connection of trust between the students and the teachers.”
The mother of a student with physical health issues said that at public schools in three states, adults dismissed her daughter’s health problems and classmates bullied her. She was suicidal and did not want to attend school anymore.
At Harpswell Coastal Academy, “People care about her,” the mother said. “They care about her life, her health issues, and I don’t believe she’ll be bullied by the other kids.”
“We really need this school,” the woman added.
Three state legislators — Reps. Jay McCreight, D-Harpswell, Poppy Arford, D-Brunswick, and Steve Moriarty, D-Cumberland — testified in support of renewal, along with Harpswell Selectman David Chipman and Brunswick Town Councilor Kathy Wilson. Wilson serves on the school’s board of directors.
McCreight, a former public school social worker, said she did not immediately embrace the concept of charter schools. But after learning about students’ experiences and visiting the school, “I have come to appreciate the importance of the school to students, families and community,” she said.
Representatives of Harpswell Aging at Home and the Harpswell Historical Society also spoke in favor of renewal, citing positive experiences with Harpswell Coastal Academy students.
The commission will continue to accept comments by email to email@example.com until 5 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 6. The commission will vote on renewal during a meeting in Room 103 of the Burton M. Cross Building in Augusta at 1 p.m. on Oct. 11.