By Bruce Poliquin
Maine State Treasurer
Last week, Maine students joined those in 40 other states in finally having the choice to learn at publicly funded charter schools that provide flexible curriculums and more accountability than traditional public schools.
The first two charter schools ever allowed in Maine opened with 106 deserving students marking the historic events: 46 high school students from 27 school districts gathered at the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences (MeANS) at Good Will-Hinckley along the Kennebec River in Fairfield; and 60 students in grades K-6 celebrated the new Cornville Regional Charter School in Somerset County.
After 18 failed legislative bills spanning decades of fruitless attempts, last year 21 Maine State Senators and 88 Representatives passed a new law allowing students to benefit from more educational options. But 64 legislators voted against LD 1553, which was sponsored by Senator Garrett Mason (R-Androscoggin County).
Charter schools are funded with state taxpayer dollars but operate independently of local school boards. As a result, they can be more innovative for kids struggling with traditional “one-size-fits-all” curriculums.
Click here to watch the 2:11-minute newscast on WABI TV Channel 5 marking the historic opening of the MeANS charter school. High school junior Nicholas Fothergill from Wiscasset and senior Olivia Broadrick from York explain why the MeANS hands-on approach to learning excites and motivates them.
With many classes taught outdoors, MeANS provides a real-world working experience in farming, forestry, environmental science, and related fields. This new educational opportunity will help to fill a gap for Maine students interested in technical careers, and help to reverse the State’s 21% high school drop-out rate.
With lots of hard work by many dedicated parents, the Cornville Regional Charter School opened on October 1 with lots of smiling faces. Bake sale and Zumba dance class fundraisers contributed to maintaining and cleaning an unused public school building. Besides those from Cornville, the first elementary charter school in Maine includes children from Canaan, Mercer, Skowhegan, Norridgewock and Smithfield. Next year, the school aims to add a seventh grade and 30 more students.
A group of concerned residents submitted the 650-page application to the Maine Charter School Commission which approved the Cornville charter last June. A lottery determined which students who applied would attend during the first school year.
In addition to state core curriculum requirements, the new Cornville charter school teaches its students everyday skills like cooking, knitting, gardening, and woodworking. Students interact with different age groups, progress according to their individual abilities, and help other kids along the way. Classroom days last 7.5 hours as compared to 6 hours in traditional public elementary schools. That equates to roughly an additional 43 school days per year. Teachers need not belong to a union, and instructor certification is more flexible. For example, a carpenter or gardener from the community can share their skills with the charter school students.
Cate Conway of Anson said she doesn’t mind the 20-mile ride to Cornville each day with her second and sixth grade children. “I really like the ability of the kids to interact with different age groups and for them to work on their own skill level as well as help other children. If a kid has experience in something, they can help other kids, which I think is a great way to learn.”
The LePage Administration and legislative majority are pushing to expand educational opportunities for Maine students of all ages. A big step toward that end is supplementing traditional public education with more flexible charter schools offering different courses, often taught within a different classroom setting. Some kids learn better with their hands and bodies rather than only with their books. Some students benefit more from a structured education built around a specific passion, like the performing or visual arts, math and science, or marine biology. And, the new charter school law enables teachers, students, and the schools themselves to be held more accountable for their performance.
Maine state government is, finally, beginning to allow all kids to better pursue their dreams. The best education possible for each unique Maine student will give him/her more options and opportunities in life. A top notch education leads to more career choices, higher incomes, less government dependency, more freedom, and more fulfilling lives. Let’s continue to help prepare our students to secure the jobs they want, not those that nobody else does.