It's a REALity: Brunswick prepares for 1st year with special-ed school

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BRUNSWICK — When the School Board voted to begin overseeing the Falmouth-based REAL School last March, it not only saved the school from closing, but gained a new partnership that expands an ongoing effort to develop special education programming.

Now, almost six months later, the REAL School is preparing for a first day of school that almost didn’t happen.

Principal Martin Mackey said students can expect to receive the same individualized, experiential learning they are used to.

“The goal of the whole thing is that nothing would change too much,” Mackey said, referring to the transition between school systems – which was spurred by RSU 14’s decision to drop REAL school from its district.

That goal was developed with the students in mind: the REAL School, which, according to a brochure, provides “an adventure-based alternative special education program … (for students) whose needs have not been met in traditional school programs,” sought hard not to disrupt the learning paths of its students, many of whom already experienced repeated disruptions over the course of their education.

But that isn’t to say that Mackey and the Brunswick School Department won’t look forward to creating new partnerships and programs in the Brunswick area.

“The collaboration (with the Brunswick School Department) has been fabulous,” Mackey said in an interview last Friday, mainly because the REAL school’s philosophy is consistent with the department’s progressive vision for social equity.

For example, the REAL School will add grades three through six this fall because Brunswick school administrators saw that some of the younger students’ needs could be met by the program.

Other than the grade expansion, Mackey held off naming specific partnerships with Brunswick organizations, likely because it hinges on the school’s move to a Brunswick location, which is scheduled to take place next year. At that point, Mackey said, the school will be in a better position to develop programs with organizations such as Seeds of Independence at Brunswick Landing.

Assistant Superintendent Pender Makin suggested there could also be a partnership with Bowdoin College, which already has mentoring and tutoring partnerships with Brunswick schools.

Page Nichols, the school’s Restorative Justice specialist, said the REAL School’s pedagogical model is intended to “wrap the program around the child,” and the transition to Brunswick has energized the school’s staff around the new possibilities of meeting student needs.

Like Mackey, Nichols complimented the Brunswick School Department for its “professional courage” in taking on the REAL School. “You’re taking risks with your budget and what the community might think of your decision,” Nichols said.

Although fiscally speaking, the REAL School is by most accounts a benefit to Brunswick.

Prior to this year, Brunswick students who attended the REAL School cost the town a higher out-of-district tuition fee, Makin said. The school’s funding model is a self-sustaining enterprise, where the cost of operations is divided by the number of students. However, Makin clarified that out-of-district students incur extra costs such as transportation and fees only partially covered by MaineCare, which subsidizes tuition for mental health placements.

In an email Monday, Makin said, “We will continue to support Brunswick students in some of these out-of-district placements in the short term, as we don’t want to disrupt a student’s educational experience if it is successful.

“But over the next several years, we hope to be able to serve most of our students with outlying needs within our own district at REAL School. I expect there to be more significant cost savings over time.”

In March, School Department Business Manager Jim Oikle estimated a possible $300,000 benefit to Brunswick by incorporating the REAL school.

Makin, notably, is the former principal of the REAL School. While both she and Director of Student Services Barbara Gunn were reluctant to take credit for the praise and progressiveness heaped on them by Mackey and Nichols, they are both dedicated to providing a more robust program for students with special education needs in Brunswick.

In addition to incorporating the REAL School, the department hired two new social workers last year and hired a third this fall. “In special ed, you have to have a continuum of services,” Gunn said. “(The REAL School) is the last stop on that continuum.”

Makin, Gunn, and Superintendent Paul Perzanoski all have professional backgrounds in special education schools, and bring valuable knowledge to what Makin called the department’s “careful, thoughtful” expansion of programming for students whose unique needs require an more individualized, alternative education.

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

Martin Mackey, principal of the REAL School on Mackworth Island in Falmouth, said he is excited to build partnerships between the school’s special education program and the Brunswick School Department, which took over administration at the school last March.

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Reporter on the Brunswick/Harpswell beat. Proud Bowdoin grad that you can find reporting on municipal, school, and community news, or inside the many coffee and sandwich shops around the Midcoast. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100.