UNITY — Lēza Packard acknowledges teenagers took a gamble enrolling at the Ecology Learning Center when the public charter school opened in September 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic was upending life in every corner of the country.

But those students persevered and so did the Unity school, which was the 10th and final public charter institution authorized by the state to launch.

And now the school has celebrated its first graduating class, with 24 seniors receiving diplomas in a ceremony Thursday at the exhibition hall on the grounds of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association in Unity.

“This graduating class is extraordinarily brave,” said Packard, who’s the head of school at the Ecology Learning Center. “They jumped into a school that had never been open before.”

She added, “They were really taking a gamble with a new school during a pandemic when no really knew what was going to survive during that time.”

The center now has just more than 100 students, which Packard said is an ideal number because the school was designed to have 24 students for each grade. It offers a broad curriculum, but the sciences are a primary focus, as is an outdoor learning program it provides. Most of the students come from Waldo County, but others travel from places like Bangor, Brewer, Lincolnville and Whitefield for classes.


Packard noted that home-schooling is an “important part of the fabric of Waldo County” and, indeed, about a third of the students at the school were previously home-schooled. Another third were previously enrolled a few miles away at Mount View High School in Thorndike.

She said the Ecology Learning Center offers “a smaller, more familial setting” and students who previously were home-schooled tend to be more self-directed “because they’ve been at home where they’re often given the autonomy of choice.”

A majority of the graduates will move on to community college, largely because of the free tuition that’s offered, Packard said. Others will enroll at the Waldo County Technical Center in Belfast to learn a trade. Still others were already taking courses at the tech center through a partnership the school has with the center and now are ready to launch a career in the automotive field or another area such as welding.

Packard emphasized the importance of such partnerships to broaden opportunities for students. The school has similar arrangements with MOFGA, Unity-based Regional School Unit 3 for its students to participate in athletics, and the University of Maine’s Hutchinson Center in Belfast to enhance professional development opportunities.

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story