CORNVILLE — An American flag from the closed Cornville Elementary School was raised and then lowered Monday morning in a ceremony marking the opening of the new Cornville Regional Charter School.
“Two years ago this flag was lowered from the flagpole in front of this school building,” school principal William H. Crumley told an assembly of parents, students, teachers and invited guests. “Today we will raise this flag one last time and then retire it, followed by the raising of a new flag. Today we make history.”
The new school, with 60 students in kindergarten through grade six, is the first elementary education charter school in Maine.
Built as a consolidated school in 1956 and remodeled with a new wing in 1990, the Cornville school was closed by Regional School Unit 54 in 2010 as a means to cut costs. Besides Cornville, the district includes Canaan, Mercer, Skowhegan, Norridgewock and Smithfield.
The town took over the school in June of that year, agreeing to raise $25,000 to heat and maintain the building.
There were fundraisers, bake sales and Zumba dancing classes to pay for keeping the old school clean and open. Meanwhile, a group of residents led by parent Justin Belanger was composing a 650-page application to open a charter school that would teach everyday skills, including cooking, knitting, gardening and woodworking, along with classroom lessons based on Maine’s Common Core of Learning.
On July 17, the state Charter School Commission approved the Cornville charter. A bingo-style lottery was held in September to determine which students who applied from several surrounding towns would attend.
Crumley, of Jackman, was hired in August. Teachers, education technicians and office staff were hired over the summer.
“For folks in all of the cities and towns of central Maine and beyond, we’re crossing the threshold today of a new frontier of public education in Maine,” Crumley told the assembly Monday outside the school.
Monday was the culmination of a lot of hard work, according to Belanger, now executive director of the school.
“The floors are waxed and clean and there’s a new coat of paint on everything,” Belanger said. “The building looks great. A lot of people put in a lot of hours to get this done. The kids are excited.”
Students at the Cornville charter school will be taught in combined classes in first and second grade, third and fourth grade and fifth and sixth grade. There are no grade barriers, Crumley said, adding that the entire school will be on the same topic — social studies, reading or math — at the same time of every school day.
Cate Conway, of Anson, said her children are enrolled in second grade and in sixth grade and she won’t mind the 20-plus miles to school each day. Her children previously were home-schooled.
“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,” Conway said. “If a kid has experience in something, they can help other kids, which I think is a great way to learn.”
Jana Lapoint, chairwoman of the Maine Charter School Commission, said at the school Monday that she likes the fact that charter schools offer more flexibility than a conventional public school.
Classroom days are 7 1/2 hours long, as opposed to the six hours in a public elementary school, which translates into 43 additional days of school per year, she said. Teachers do not have to be in a union, but can form their own bargaining unit if they choose. Teacher certification is also more flexible, allowing someone from the community — a gardener or a carpenter — to teach at a charter school, she said.
“They don’t have limitations put on them the way public school may have, so in my way of looking at it it’s a much more creative environment for children to be in,” Lapoint said.
Deborah Freedman, director of policy and programs for the state Department of Education, said the Cornville school is a good model for Maine charter schools to come.
“It’s wonderful,” she said Monday at the school. “It’s a lovely school. It’s a real testament to the community that they have been able to pull this together. This is a great example — it was built by the community and parents who saw a need for it and got together and through massive volunteer effort have pulled this off. I think this is one of the best examples of the type of charter school that Maine can produce.
“The governor and the commissioner are very pleased that this is a great example of school choice.”
Students seem to like their new digs, too.
Malcolm Harmon, of Skowhegan, a student in the combined fifth- and sixth-grade class, said he will have the opportunity to learn and to teach.
“My favorite part is the special interest programs so I can teach origami,” Malcolm said in the classroom Monday. “And I would like to learn how to make advanced things with, like, homemade paper.”
Taylor Cassiani, also of Skowhegan, said she looks forward to studying science in the charter school setting and getting help in math.
Malcolm and Taylor’s classmate, Bayley Hayden, of Cornville, summed up the opening of the charter school with a few words of wisdom.
“I like the fact that we have our school back and the fact that it’s new and old at the same time,” she said.
Doug Harlow — 612-2367