HARPSWELL — The Harpswell Coastal Academy students on Monday had just finished watching “No Impact Man,” a documentary about an urban family that went a year without using electricity and other amenities typically thought of as necessities.
“I think it was going good until it went overboard (when the family stopped using electricity)”, one student said. “You don’t need to get rid of it. You could have just used solar panels.”
The discussion was part of the charter school’s advisory group period, which happens three or four times a week, when the school’s 60 students split into small groups and discuss lessons and questions of the day.
HCA’s leaders said these periods have been integral in the charter school’s first days, as students get to know each other and the school’s small staff.
The school serves about 30 sixth-grade and 30 ninth-grade students. It will expand over the next few years to eventually support grades 6-12 with a student population of 280 by 2018.
The focus on building relationships and culture is part of the small-school ethos, Headmaster John D’Anieri said, something that will contribute to a safe and healthy learning environment.
“When a kid gets up in the morning, relatively many of them are thinking about the social interactions than they are going to have that day,” said D’Anieri, who also teaches language arts and humanities. “The safety is in creating an atmosphere where bullying is unacceptable, where you can learn to love the gobbling up of information.”
Paige Booty, a student in Division II, the school’s equivalent to ninth and 10th grades, said she has already noticed how the school has fostered a healthy social environment.
“I really like how there are lot of different people here, like different personality-wise,” she said, “and how there are no cliques, because we’re all so different. We try to be friends with everybody, which is great because it’s nice to not have the mean kids at school.”
This was evident as nearly all of the school’s 60 students sat with each other across three tables during lunch, where they were served nutritious meals by the School House Cafe’s new chef and manager, Amy Aloe. The remaining students were sitting with teachers who were eating the same meals.
“We have quite a few parents saying something along the lines of, ‘this is the first time my kid has felt eager to go to school, safe to go to school,'” D’Anieri said. “Some of the kids really appreciate that and need a place where safety and emotional safety is a thing that gets put first.”
The headmaster said there is plenty of research to show that smaller schools like HCA can help foster safer places for students and therefore better learning environments.
D’Anieri cited one study from 2012 that was financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and found that high school students are more likely to graduate from a smaller school setting.
Another aspect of HCA’s small-school structure that encourages students to thrive is the way the school tracks the progress of each student, said Carrie Branson, the assistant headmaster.
Instead of receiving grades for each assignment, teachers check to see if students have properly grasped lessons on a daily basis and then over time, she said. Then, according to each student’s ability, the teacher adjusts the pace of learning.
For instance, Branson said, if several students haven’t shown a strong understanding of a certain subject, they won’t receive a bad grade. Instead, the teacher will revisit the subject from a different angle with the students during an afternoon workshop.
D’Anieri also noted that mastering subjects won’t be as simple as just passing a test.
“If a student is showing they can master the writing of a coherent paragraph on a standardized test, but they don’t frequently do that when they use an open-ended prompt in school,” D’Anieri said, “we’ve got to say they only partially met that standard and go back to teach them more.”
Seth Rollins, a Division II student, said he likes HCA’s method of teaching better than what he experienced at traditional public schools.
“They don’t let you go on until you beat everything in that chapter, and that’s really helpful because, say someone gets all A’s and goes to college – they may not even know as much,” he said, referring to students in traditional classrooms.
D’Anieri said this method of teaching will enable students of different learning styles to reach their goals.
“We have kids who are genuinely motivated by information and traditional learning, and we have kids who have not been successful in schools before,” he said. “We need to allow both kinds of kids to thrive.”
Harpswell Coastal Academy Headmaster John D’Anieri, right, and Assistant Headmaster Carrie Branson lead a discussion about sustainable living with their advisory group students on Monday, Sept. 16.