Risk pays off for Harpswell Coastal Academy's 1st graduates

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BRUNSWICK — Four years after the doors opened on Ash Point Road, Harpswell Coastal Academy will graduate its charter class June 9.

For those eight students, it means leaving a school that has yet to exist without them – a school they helped to create.

“We started without even chairs, and now we have two buildings,” senior Madi Griffin said in an interview May 18.

Founded in 2013, the science-oriented charter school moved into the old elementary school on Ash Point Road in South Harpswell. With every passing year, a new grade level has been added. In 2015, upper-level students migrated to a new campus at Brunswick Landing.

The school’s growth, according to its soon-to-be-graduates, occurred pedagogically as well as physically.

“We wanted to be different, but how different?” Ian Poeraatmadja said, stating the question on the minds of his classmates and teachers as they embarked on the school’s first semester.

It was a risk the students were willing to take, he said.

Senior Chris Duffeck said he quickly found gratification in the school’s willingness to embrace subjects that his previous teachers had thought were “a waste of time.”

“I believe what he’s saying is, ‘March to the beat of your own drummer,'” Poeraatmadja chimed in.

Over the first year, students participated in the physical set-up of the school – from clearing brush and creating classrooms, to building the curriculum.

Poeraatmadja said administrators would seek input from students every quarter to create a course of learning that achieved the right balance of independence and support – an organic process that took years, but, in Poeraatmadja’s words, “metaphorically blobbed into something.”

That wasn’t always easy.

Teachers and students also sought to find a balance of “capability versus ambition,” according to Poeraatmadja, explaining that the underpinning idealism of some the school’s early ventures was sometimes too lofty.

“Sometimes it was obvious, sometimes it wasn’t,” Griffin said.

For instance, she said an early project that involved students working on nearby clam flats proved to be beyond the students’ capabilities.

Eventually, the school hit its stride without sacrificing the vision of providing a nontraditional, individualized education to students.

In practice, that often means experiential and interdisciplinary work, perhaps best exemplified by the periodic “investigation” projects that students pursue throughout the year.

Investigations are designed to let students tackle a subject from multiple disciplines, which makes for dynamic learning experiences geared toward a person’s unique interest, students explained.

Upper School Dean Maria Russell said the school used a standards-based grading system, which allows educators to design curriculum to meet traditional content areas and scholastic skills through non-traditional ways. Students need to complete at least 80 percent of standards to graduate; Russell noted that was a high bar for achievement, given it translates to a B-minus on a traditional grading scale.

As students reach higher grade levels – and pursue projects that aim to complete what remaining standards they need in order to graduate – they have more freedom over their subjects.

Griffin, for example, drew from summers spent farming to study horses. Poeraatmadja, on the other hand, studied the cultural influence of swords in Japan, a project that spanned from legal history to the investigation of tempering metals.

Noticing that he had several social studies requirements to complete before graduation, Duffeck is working closely with a University of New England professor to complete an analytical paper on economic and environmental policies proposed by President Donald Trump.

“It went from something that started as trying to meet a requirement, to going for something that I was genuinely interested in,” he said.

To that end, investigations can be a gateway to what students hope to peruse after high school.

Griffin is slated to attend college in Pennsylvania to study equine-facilitated therapeutics. Poeraatmadja and Duffeck will head down the street from the HCA campus to Southern Maine Community College, where they’ll study to become a history teacher and major in communications, respectively.

“This school has prepared me for what the real world will be,” Duffeck said.

But unconventionality aside, graduating seniors won’t be deprived of a few traditional high school milestones.

Before they graduate in a ceremony June 9 at Mitchell Field, seniors are hard at work to pioneer the first prom in the school’s history.

To be held under a tent in the parking lot of the school’s Brunswick campus, Russell said the students are doing all the planning themselves – an idea that sparked both a look of pride and one of quasi-parental worry on Russell’s face.

For staff, she said, “there are a lot of sentimental feelings flying around.”

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

Harpswell Coastal Academy student Ian Poeraatmadja, left, Upper School Dean Maria Russell, student Madi Griffin, and student Chris Duffeck in Russell’s office May 18. The three students are set to graduate June 9, and as members of the 4-year-old charter school’s initial class, have been with the school since its inception.

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Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net.