FAIRFIELD — Lisa Sandy is getting a lot of phone calls these days.
Sandy, the admissions director at the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, said interest in the school has spiked since Jan. 23, when the Harold Alfond Foundation announced its $10.85 million gift to the Maine Community College System and to Good Will-Hinckley, home of the academy.
Parents and students alike have been seeking more information about the magnet high school that focuses on hands-on learning, agriculture, environmental studies, forestry and workforce and living skills.
Interest was additionally heightened when Gov. Paul LePage lauded the academy in his state of the state address, she said.
Sandy recently sat down with a woman and her 13-year-old daughter who is interested in becoming a game warden. The teen liked the idea of experiential learning and wanted to see if the academy might be a good fit.
Sandy said a number of parents she has spoken with are encouraged that their children are excited about learning. “They’re seeing hope for their child,” she said.
Glenn Cummings, executive director of Good Will-Hinckley, said parents are relieved to know there’s a place for their bright children who haven’t flourished in a traditional school setting.
The academy setting is one of forests, fields and gardens. And kitchens, markets, fire departments, farms and garages. And a classroom or two.
The weekday schedule for this year’s 20 or so pioneer students is two hours of classes, two-and-a-half hours of individual and group work, and two hours of internships, college coursework or job shadowing. Those who live in a campus cottage also assist with meal preparation and chores.
Students have also been ambassadors for their day and residential academy. From testifying before legislators to meetings with potential donors, students have shared a common refrain about the school: it feels like home.
And school officials say the foundation’s gift strengthens the academy’s future.
Next fall, the grade nine to 12 academy seeks to enroll 40 students, which would require hiring several more teachers and campus life advisers.
Within a decade, the target student enrollment is 200.
The foundation’s financial gift enabled the state’s college system to buy about 690 acres from Good Will-Hinckley so that Kennebec Valley Community College can expand its campus, enrollment, staffing and course offerings. With the $4.5 million purchase, the community college acquired Averill/Alfond School, an organic farm, Alfond Recreation Center, Nutter Field House, Moody Memorial Chapel, six residential houses, a garage and a maple sap structure alongside U.S. Route 201.
Community college officials estimate with the added space and facilities that enrollment at the community college could swell from about 2,600 to 5,000.
Cummings said a partnership with Kennebec Valley Community College will be a boon for academy students whose experience will now range from college course to working at the organic farm.
And starting in September, the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences will be in session 12 months a year.
Troy Frost, director of education, said because the academy emphasizes agriculture and forestry, it’s logical to be in session during harvest season. Produce from the plots will be served in the school cafeteria and the residential cottages. Frost said that next year students will also likely be caring for chickens, goats and other small livestock.
For the 2012-13 school year, Frost said students will attend classes four days a week. A couple of winter vacations will be extended and other traditional breaks, including a week around Independence Day, will be kept so that the number of school days remain the same.
Graduations will be in mid-August and after a break of a few weeks, classes will resume after Labor Day, he said.
With the sale of the central portion of campus the academy will now base its operations on the adjacent 640-acre south portion of grounds, which includes woods, farmland, river frontage, tennis and basketball courts, Prescott building, Carnegie Library, Moody School, L.C. Bates Museum, Golden Rule cottage, seven other cottages and Swayze dormitory.
Cummings said many of the structures on the south campus are in need of repair and renovation.
Almost all of teh money from the sale of the central campus to Kennebec Valley Community College went into the endowment, so it’s not available to use for renovations, said Cummings.
Through 2013, the academy will continue to hold classes in Averill/Alfond School, while the previously vacant Moody School, located adjacent to the L.C. Bates Museum, undergoes a $3.5-million renovation.
The renovation includes erecting two hoop greenhouses off the south end of the structure and making the brick school energy efficient, Cummings said.
When school starts in September, Cummings hopes the academy will be operating as a charter school — a public, tuition-free school that students may attend as an alternative to traditional public schools. Academy officials are preparing an application to be such a school.
When the academy does attain charter school status, Good Will-Hinckley will receive an additional $1 million award from the Harold Alfond Foundation. Cummings said that money, like money from the land sale, will go into the endowment.
With charter school status, Cummings said revenues would increase, because the academy would receive funds that would have gone to students’ local school districts.
With the south and central portions of campus about to grow and change, perhaps in the near future the same can be said of Good Will-Hinckley’s 920-acre north campus. Cummings said it is for sale.
Beth Staples — 861-9252