Harpswell charter school takes off at new Brunswick campus

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BRUNSWICK — Standing outside his school’s new campus at Brunswick Landing, Matt Hamilton smiled and asked a question.

“How many kids show up to school with nothing on the wall and no desks?” the assistant head of school at Harpswell Coastal Academy said.

That’s exactly what happened when HCA’s 70 high school students arrived for their first day Monday, Aug. 31.

The charter school eventually plans to enroll upwards of 160 high school students. This is HCA’s first year operating the high school at the new Brunswick campus.

HCA has a one-year lease from Brunswick nonprofit Seeds of Independence on a building that used to serve as a payroll center for the U.S. Navy.

Right now, the building, which contains one large room surrounded by several smaller classrooms and a kitchenette, is just as Hamilton said: empty, but for a few chairs and a projector.

A critical part of the students first unit, or “investigation,” will be designing the work space of the school, according to humanities teacher Kelly Orr.

“Most schools are corridors with classrooms off of them, but adults don’t work in an environment like that,” she said.  “If we’re going to ask these students to become … adults and professionals, we need to put them in that space.”

To do so, the first three weeks of school will be an “intentional departure” from the academic schedule, she said. Instead, students will explore the ex-naval air station and the new businesses opening up in it to mine ideas for their own space.

On Tuesday, all 70 students spilled out of the new campus to explore their surroundings at Brunswick Landing.

They split into “crews,” each with a teacher and an iPad with scavenger-hunt guidelines.

Tasks included finding an airplane, identifying two aviation-related businesses on the former base, and locating Southern Maine Community College.

Students seemed to be pretty excited about the process of designing their own school.

“This year is a lot different … it’s such a different space,” said Sarah Lanoue, 15, of Harpswell. “It doesn’t look like a school at all.”

But that wasn’t a problem for her. She said she already had some design experience after her class did a “green building” project last year.

Lanoue said the transition from the Harpswell campus to the new one in Brunswick might not be so easy for everyone, though. Her friend Garrit Reynolds had just skipped eighth grade, and his best friend was at HCA in Harpswell.

Reynolds, 13, of Bowdoin, said he missed the Harpswell campus because “when it’s foggy there, you can smell the ocean.”

Here, he said, “it’s kind of hot.”

But he said he was happy to be at a charter school.

In “traditional school,” Reynolds said, he would finish his work quickly and then usually just “sit there.”

“Because I’m a social person, I would talk to the person behind me, then to the left of me, then to the right … as far as teachers were concerned, they didn’t like me,” he said.

“And I can’t blame them,” Reynolds added. “HCA does a better job at keeping up with me.”

He said one of his favorite projects at HCA last year was building a Rube Goldberg machine, which is a “very complex machine that completes a simple task,” like Doc Brown’s alarm and toaster in the beginning of the movie “Back to the Future.”

“Mine poured a glass of water … it was ironic because to do it, you had to pour a glass of water,” Reynolds said.

HCA Head of School John D’Anieri said the new campus at Brunswick Landing was a perfect place for creative projects like Reynolds’.

“Harpswell was where we got started, and it’s a big part of our identity, but we want to be just as high tech as we are low tech … to have a rural campus and an ‘urban’ campus,” he said.

He cited an eventual requirement that HCA students take a Southern Maine Community College course to graduate, and exploring office spaces for design ideas, as examples of Brunswick Landing’s advantage.

“We are hearing this from the business community … they need kids who are better at collaborating, initiating projects, and asking questions and knowing when to take a risk,” D’Anieri said.

Just because a student passes a math class, he added, doesn’t mean he or she necessarily knows how to implement mathematical concepts in areas like design and engineering.

“Some kids thrive in traditional classroom atmosphere,” D’Anieri said. “I don’t know if that’s ever been true for most kids.”

At the end of the scavenger hunt, Reynolds had plotted their route on a map of Brunswick Landing, and even identified a blank spot on the pre-made map they’d been given.

Then he, Lanoue, and their group posed for a picture under a P-3 Orion anti-submarine aircraft they’d found sitting off of Admiral Fitch Avenue.

Although their lease from Seeds of Independence is for only a year, and the building is admittedly too small, “our long-term plan is to be at Brunswick Landing,” D’Anieri said.

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or wwuthmann@theforecaster.net. Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

Standing beneath a a P-3 Orion anti-submarine aircraft at Brunswick Landing on Monday, Aug. 31, Harpswell Coastal Academy high school student Sarah Lanoue, 15, of Harpswell, and writing teacher Rory Wall check for the next scavenger hunt item on the school’s first day.

Harpswell Coastal Academy has a one-year lease, for now, on this building at Brunswick Landing.

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.