CORNVILLE, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- Seeking to curb the number of kids that fail to graduate from high school, the Maine legislature approved allowing charter schools to open in the state for the first time in its history.
On Monday, the first two schools opened their doors officially. The Maine Academy of Natural Sciences is housed on the campus of Good Will-Hinckley, and plans to center its offerings to students around agriculture and the environment. The Cornville Regional Charter School took over an old elementary school in that community and welcomed 60 students grades kindergarten through 6th grade for its inaugural enrollment.
Ninety parents applied to have their children attend the new school, so a lottery system was used to select the first crop of young minds.
"It really did amaze us with how many people took that leap of faith and said, 'we like your program. We like your mission and your vision so much, that we are willing to take this chance on you with out children'," said Justin Belanger, executive director of the school.
"I think the driving force behind it, for me anyways, was to be able to say, 'this is what I think is best for our kids' and be able to make that change," he added.
The school is unique in a couple different ways. The school day is seven and a half hours long, about an hour and a half longer than traditional public school days. According to principal Dr. William Crumley, that translates into forty-three additional days of instruction per year.
"We have a great deal of flexibility as to how we teach, and what we teach and who teaches it in charter schools," stated Dr. Crumley.
"What charter schools really provide is the opportunity to use creativity," he said as he explained how the school would be using the community as its classroom.
"It is those hands-on, learning opportunities that can keep some students really engaged. They are relevant to their everyday life."
Principal Crumley says students will do assignments on language, reading and math in the mornings, and social studies and science in the afternoon, but there are no set times as to when a certain class begins or ends.
"The constant in our school is the proficiency, the variable is the time," he said. "We can take as much time as we need to get that student to the next level of proficiency."
He says students will be put into classes, not based on age, but on their ability to understand subject matter. "If a 3rd grade student is really an advanced reader, they will be in a reading group with 5th and 6th grade students probably."
"I like to think that we have 60 classes going on in our school. Each child is the class," he added.
The school receives a stipend from the state to help cover the cost of attending the charter school, but the school's board is charged with coming up with outside funding sources, from businesses or grants from foundations, to help make the non-profit school sustainable.
The school is required to keep class sizes small, with one teacher for each fifteen students.
"Is it expensive? Absolutely. But is it worth it in the end? Absolutely," said Belanger.
The staff and teachers at the school say charter schools are not an indictment of public schools, they say charter schools give parents and teachers the flexibility to create a school where kids of all ability levels can learn at their own pace and reach their full potential.
"Public schools do an excellent job, and we have excellent public school teachers, and my wife is one of them," said Belanger. "They are doing their best for their students. Charter schools just give a greater amount of freedom to teach to the different levels."