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Harpswell residents float idea for marine-themed charter school

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Harpswell residents float idea for marine-themed charter school

HARPSWELL — A proposal to create a marine-themed charter school in town is gaining momentum.

The idea to build a school that incorporates Harpswell's maritime heritage with experiential education has attracted the attention of selectmen, residents on both the neck and the islands, as well as Rep. Kim Olsen, R-Phippsburg, and Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls.

According to Robert Anderson, who came up with the idea after charter schools were legalized last summer, the school's curriculum would combine traditional education with marine studies and experiential learning. Students would learn math by building boats and biology by seeding clam beds, as well as study up-and-coming industries like renewable energy.

Anderson said Mitchell Field would be an ideal location for the new school, although the town-owned West Harpswell School building is also a possibility.

Since pitching his idea, Anderson has attracted a small group of committed volunteers who are trying to put together a board of directors and register as a nonprofit corporation.

The group met to discuss strategy on Wednesday night, including how to convince people that Harpswell needs a charter school.

For Tom Allen, a member of the core group, the reasons are two-fold: attracting families to Harpswell, where the population is rapidly aging, and contributing "something to the town that could be long-lasting and a real source of pride."

Joe Grady, who runs Two Coves Farm and used to teach at Casco Bay High School in Portland, said he believes in giving parents and students choices, and noted there aren't any experiential education options in the area.

For Harpswell families dissatisfied with public education, Allen said there are few options except to withdraw their children from the school system. But withdrawal from the school district, he and other group members said, is not a goal of the charter school.

Last year, Harpswell voters were asked if they wanted to study withdrawing from  School Administrative District 75, which they narrowly rejected. Group members said some may think the charter school proposal is related to that referendum, which stemmed from anger with the district for closing West Harpswell School. But they deny that connection.

"When somebody brings up the SAD 75 withdrawal, we try to silence it," Anderson said.

The group, in fact, may need SAD 75 to get its proposal off the ground, because the easiest way to create a charter school may be through the district. Under Maine's new law, only 10 new charter schools are allowed statewide in the next 10 years, but an unlimited number of charter schools can be created by individual school districts.

"Ideally, (SAD 75) would be a partner with us in this," Allen said, a sentiment echoed by group member Robert McIntyre, who led the unsuccessful campaign last year to get Harpswell to study withdrawing from the school district.

In order to avoid the impression that the charter school proposal is connected in any way to last year's referendum, the group is seeking to attract members from Cundy's Harbor, Orr's Island and Bailey Island to serve on a board of directors.

Ultimately, they said they hope the school could have regional appeal, attracting students not just from within SAD 75's four towns, but from communities up and down the coast. They envision dormitories, too, so students from Down East coastal communities could attend.

Regardless of whether the charter school develops a regional appeal, Allen said he hopes it will ultimately "be a mirror to the character of Harpswell itself."

The group's next meeting is Feb. 1 at 7 p.m. at the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust.

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext.123 or eguerin@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @guerinemily.