Harpswell charter school thrives in its sophomore year

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HARPSWELL — Now in its second year, Harpswell Coastal Academy has doubled its students and staff, added two new grades and broadened programming and long-term projects in its classrooms.

That’s a lot of transition for the fledgling charter school, and Headmaster John D’Anieri admits he expected the second year to be harder than the first.

To his surprise, it’s been going more smoothly than he could imagine.

“I think we have an extraordinarily good staff,” said D’Anieri, during an interview in his small office in the former West Harpswell School, on Harpswell Neck.

“The people who come to us really want to work here. That’s a large part of what has made this year go as well as it has,” he added.

HCA opened in 2013 with a staff of eight and about 60 students, in grades six and nine. This year the school expanded to include grades seven and 10, bringing its student population to 123. Six more employees were hired.

The school plans on adding grades eight and 11 next year, and grade 12 after that, making the academy a 280-student middle and high school by its fourth year. 

As the school expands, so does its programming.

New staff strengthen the school’s cross-disciplinary approach by adding their own personal talents and interests, D’Anieri said. Topics ranging from small engine repair to organic farming are brought to the classroom, multiplying HCA’s ever-broadening mix of projects. 

“You don’t throw your hat in the ring to get a job here if you want to teach one thing and one thing only,” D’Anieri said.

For example, one new teacher plans to leverage her experience as a ship captain into a possible sailing course. Another is adding musical arts to the school, while yet another is helping to get a boat-restoration project off the ground.

Middle School science teacher Micah Depper, who started in HCA’s inaugural year, said the influx of new faces has only strengthened the school, even as it adds more students.

“We’re all kind of in disbelief at how well it has gone so far,” he said, in between bites of a sandwich from Schoolhouse Cafe, the Harpswell restaurant that provides meals for the school.

Depper had just finished teaching a class to a rambunctious class of sixth- and seventh-graders, using a home-built trebuchet – a kind of catapult – to illustrate propulsion.

As HCA’s capacity grows, it will become even more interdisciplinary and inventive Depper said. But even with its unique approach, he added, the school has to fulfill all the testing and learning standards required by the state. 

Aside from teaching science, Depper also runs the school’s farming program. Over recent months, it managed to grow all the potatoes the school is expected to use over the year, he said. Within the next five years, the program aims to provide all the vegetables used by the school.

The school’s other long-term projects include an examination of renewable energy, to see what system might work best for the school building HCA plans to construct, and a continuation of its study of denuded clam flats in Harpswell, D’Anieri said.

As it continues growing, HCA will also boost its outreach to partners in Harpswell and beyond. Glancing at a town map in his office, D’Anieri estimates the school has worked with about half the businesses or groups in the community.

But getting students out into its community isn’t just an excuse to fulfill some “field-trippy” impulse, D’Anieri said. The outreach is an integral part of the school’s approach, and helps instill self-confidence in students who struggle in a traditional classroom by showing them the impact of their coursework.

“It’s how our kids learn,” D’Anieri said, “by really feeling like their work matters to somebody.”

Peter L. McGuire can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or pmcguire@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter @mcguiremidcoast.

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Science teacher Micah Depper calls on a student during class at Harpswell Coastal Academy, which has doubled its enrollment since opening last year.

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