AUGUSTA — At least five organizations, including an unexpected one, are applying to open charter schools in Maine this fall.
State education officials had anticipated letters from four groups — proposing a statewide virtual charter school, a primary school in Cornville, a high school in Portland and a conversion of the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Fairfield to a charter school — but they weren’t expecting one that came in for a school in the Piscataquis County town of Monson.
Don Dunfee, of Monson, hopes to start a school in his town for kindergarten through sixth grade this fall or next, and expand to high school and a four-year college.
“I know (it’s) totally ambitious, but not unachievable!” Dunfee wrote in his letter to the Charter School Commission.
In the letter, Dunfee proposes a charter school called Monson Academy that would provide an education that connects students with nature, particularly the woods. Students would spend much of their time outside the classroom, on trips ranging from a day to months, Dunfee wrote.
No one answered calls to the phone number listed on Dunfee’s letter of intent, and he did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Charter schools are public schools that are freed from many of the requirements placed on traditional schools. Proponents say that allows them to innovate or fill gaps in educational offerings, while critics say many charter schools produce poor results and say they divert resources from school districts already facing tight budgets.
The state’s Charter School Commission can authorize up to 10 charter schools in the next decade.
Potential charter school operators have until the close of business today to file notices of intent to apply.
Full applications are due by June 29 and will include detailed information about proposed schools’ curriculum, leadership, facilities, finances and more.
To enable the Charter School Commission to prepare to review applications, the letters of intent filed this week provide a short description of the school program, enrollment projections and information about the school location and target population.
Charter schools must be operated by nonprofit, non-religious organizations and be authorized by the state commission, a local school board or a regional collaborative of school boards.
Dunfee anticipates 20 students in the first year at the Monson school and 400 in a decade, including college students.
The organization that would run Monson Academy is Cottage Ministries, which Dunfee incorporated with the secretary of state’s office in 2010. Dunfee registered organizations with similar names in 1991 and 2008, but both were dissolved after he failed to submit annual reports.
“Starting this type of education early (in kindergarten) affords the students their natural inquisitiveness to be channeled toward the natural world rather than the ‘man-made’ world — children of early childhood enjoy memorizing and identifying the names of objects; in this case the names of plants and animals, places, planets, stars and moons,” Dunfee wrote.
Cottage Ministries’ articles of incorporation from 2010 say that the organization connects missionaries and pastors who need temporary housing with owners of camp cottages and other second homes. In the charter school letter of intent, however, Dunfee states that Cottage Ministries is not a religious organization.
A Bangor Daily News article from 1996 describes Dunfee, then an undeclared candidate for the Maine House of Representatives, as “an adjunct professor at Husson College, former businessman, teacher, pastor and selectman.”
While the other groups hope to start new schools, the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences on the campus of Good Will-Hinckley in Fairfield seeks to convert into a charter school.
After closing its school for at-risk young people two years ago, Good Will-Hinckley opened the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences last year as an environmental and agricultural magnet school for about 20 day and residential students.
The state’s biennial budget gives the school $750,000 for the cost of housing students, but tuition for students is negotiated on an individual basis with the superintendents of their home districts. Some don’t provide anything because they don’t have the financial resources, Good Will-Hinckley Executive Director Glenn Cummings said.
When a student enrolls at a charter school, however, funding follows the student from the home district. Becoming a charter school would give the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences a more stable and sustainable funding stream for student tuition, Cummings said.
The school’s letter of intent projects enrollment for next year at 42, with an eventual goal of 150 students, to be drawn from all over the state.
The school, often called MeANS, provides a hands-on, project-based education for students who may struggle in a typical school setting.
Cummings said he looks forward to working in partnership with other charter schools and traditional public schools to increase Maine’s rates of high school graduation and enrollment in post-secondary education.
Another school with a statewide reach would be the Maine Virtual Academy, an online school for kindergarten to grade 12.
The applicant organization is Maine Learning Innovations, a nonprofit organization incorporated last month to open a virtual school. The group’s president is Amy Carlisle, of Falmouth.
According to the letter Carlisle submitted, Maine Learning Innovations will contract with K12 Virtual Schools for “curriculum, teaching and school management services.”
K12, a for-profit company based in Virginia, is the nation’s largest provider of propriety curriculum and online education programs.
The company sends students boxes of materials, including textbooks and hands-on kits, and students interact with teachers online as well as working independently. Younger students also need to work with a parent or other “learning coach” for two to six hours each day, K12 says.
Maine Learning Innovations projects enrollment of 200 in the first year, rising to 1,000 students eventually.
Baxter Academies of Maine will apply to open the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science on York Street in downtown Portland.
The high school would accept 160 students in the first year and later double to 320.
“Baxter Academy students will study complex, real world problems, using and building technological tools in a collaborative environment with scientists, engineers and other professionals,” says the group’s letter of intent, signed by President John Jaques, of Freeport.
While Baxter Academy will seek students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the school also will offer “a strong humanities and foreign language curriculum to prepare students to be ethical leaders in the 21st century global economy.”
A group of parents in Cornville is proposing a community school to replace Cornville Elementary School, which Regional School Unit 54 closed two years ago.
Cornville Regional Charter School would operate in the same building as the former school and serve students in kindergarten through grade eight.
The school would use a proficiency-based approach in which students are grouped and advance through the curriculum based on skill level, rather than age. The school also would connect students with farming, forestry and other businesses in the community.
“Children will learn the basics of reading, writing and math while experiencing science and social studies through hands-on projects that emphasize everyday skills such as cooking, knitting, gardening and woodworking,” the letter says.
Cornville Regional Charter School’s leaders, including board chairman Justin Belanger, expect 44 students in the first year and a total enrollment of 120.
The Charter School Commission can approve up to 10 schools in the next decade. Charters negotiated between an operator and an authorizer must be in place 60 days before the start of classes.
Susan McMillan — 621-5645