AUGUSTA — A Waldo County charter high school with an emphasis on serving rural students will be the last charter school to open under the state’s current 10-school limit on charters.

The Ecology Learning Center received unanimous support Tuesday from the Maine Charter School Commission, which voted 7-0 to approve the school for entering into charter negotiations.

“We are incredibly excited about the Ecology Learning Center and about serving the children and families of Waldo County,” Lisa Packard, the school’s executive director, said in remarks to the commission.

All seven members of the commission spoke in favor of the school before the vote.

“This school really understands the population it’s going to serve,” commission member Shelley Reed said. “I think if you don’t understand who’s coming in, it’s really hard to provide a program that meets their needs. I think they understand the families of Waldo County and who’s coming in.”

The school, which will operate on the campus of Unity College, plans to open in September 2020 and enroll as many as 96 students when at capacity.

It joins nine other charter schools, including two virtual schools, that have opened in Maine since the 2012-13 school year. Charter schools are public schools that operate independently of school districts and whose students choose to attend school there.

They often operate around a specific academic theme, such as the environment or the performing arts, or cater to a certain student population such as students at risk for dropping out of traditional schools.

The Ecology Learning Center’s aim is to serve students from primarily rural areas through an ecology-based curriculum, apprenticeships and service learning that will equip them to live and work in rural communities as adults.

“The state of Maine struggles continually with the loss of its young people as they move to places where they feel they will have greater opportunities to create the lives they envision,” the school said in its application to the commission.

“These students will come from diverse backgrounds, but the vast majority will come from rural towns, some too small to have a middle or high school, a public library, or even a grocery store.”

The application for the Ecology Learning Center says the school was formed after parents in Waldo County began asking for more educational choice and that at least one local school district, Unity-based Regional School Unit 3, supports the program.

In general, charter school proponents have highlighted them as an opportunity for school choice and to provide curriculum that better serves at-risk students.

Critics, meanwhile, have expressed concerns about the financial impact on public school districts and school performance.

According to the most recent data from the Department of Education, 50.24 percent of students statewide were at or above expectations on English/language arts assessments and 37.05 percent were at or above expectations in math in 2017-2018.

At charter schools, students at or above expectations in language arts ranged from a high of 80.23 percent at Baxter Academy for Technology and Science to a low of 21.43 at Acadia Academy in 2017-2018.

In math, the six charter schools for which the department had publicly available data ranged from 43.35 percent of students at or above expectations at Baxter Academy to 12.82 percent at the Maine Virtual Academy.

Four-year graduation rates among six charter high schools ranged from 95 percent at Baxter Academy to 49 percent at the Maine Virtual Academy. The statewide four-year graduation rate in 2017-2018 was 86.7 percent.

Performance and financial concerns recently prompted the Maine Legislature to keep a 10-school limit on the number of charter schools that can open. The Maine Department of Education is also undertaking an eight-year review of charter school performance to help shape future conversations.

Packard, the Ecology Learning Center’s executive director, said that she welcomes critiques of charter schools.

“We will always look for ways to innovate and improve so we can serve the best to the students,” she said. “I’m really ecstatic today to begin a journey of delivering the best we can to the students of Maine.”

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