A proposed Waldo County charter school went before the Maine Charter School Commission in Augusta Wednesday for a public hearing.

The Ecology Learning Center on the Unity College campus is expected to be accessible, tuition-free, to any high school student in grades nine and 10 who is a resident of Maine. As the name suggests, the school would be ecology-based and offer real-world learning through hands-on experience and mentoring.

The school's website said students would "spend more time in the community than in a classroom, researching natural and human resources of their region and solving real-world problems in their neighborhoods."

Lisa Packard, executive director for the school, said even though it is focused on ecology, traditional educational requirements will still be met. She said class sizes of 12 to 15 students are expected.

"The first year (opening in September 2020), we will start with 24 freshmen and 24 sophomores for a total of 48 students," she said. "We will add a grade level each year, to cap at 96 students (for grades nine-12)."

Regarding the public hearing, Packard said it was a success, with more than 20 people speaking in support of the proposed school, followed by 14 letters of support read aloud by the commission.

"It was fantastic," she said.

The Maine Charter School Commission received two applications from learning centers this summer proposing to become new public charter schools for the fall of 2020 — one from Ecology Learning Center, and the other from Sheffwood Academy of Topsham, which proposed to serve grades six-12 with a focus on arts and technology.

However, at the Aug. 6 Charter School Commission business meeting, the committee denied Sheffwood Academy's application, with no further action recommended. If authorized, Ecology Learning Center will be the 10th and final approved charter school in Maine.

The Charter School Commission is expected to announce its decision Tuesday, Sept. 10, at its regular monthly meeting.

Pilot program

The Ecology Learning Center began as a "seed of homeschooling families" in January 2018, as a two-day middle and high school enrichment program.

Packard said the enrichment program, dubbed "Ecology Bridge," which takes place at Water Street Learning Center in Liberty, is a pilot program for ages 12 to 15, offering classes in Spanish, Earth Arts (woodworking and pottery), Ecoliteracy (reading and writing on ecological themes), and outdoor team-building.

This transitional program from middle to high school also serves as a bridge between a two-day independent program and the future five-day publicly funded charter school. The program will continue next school year, starting Sept. 23, and enrollment is currently open.

Originally, organizers considered potential farm sites in Montville for the charter school but opted for the Unity location when the college offered to host the school on its  campus. There is a plan to develop possible curriculum partnerships with the college, such as dual enrollment for high school seniors, Packard said.

An act to create a public charter school program in Maine began in 2011, and stipulated that only 10 schools be authorized in the first 10 years.

Currently there are nine publicly funded charter schools in Maine, all authorized by the Maine Charter School Commission, a group of seven members appointed by the state Board of Education.

The Ecology Learning Center Board of Directors consists of parents, educators and professionals from diverse sectors, representing 10 towns, who meet the second Tuesday of every month, 4:30 to 6 p.m., at Liberty Town Office to counsel the project.

By September 2020, Packard envisions the learning center will encompass three interdependent branches: a charter school for grades nine-12, a homeschooling enrichment program for grades seven and eight, and community workshops for all ages.

An upcoming community workshop on outdoor cooking will take place Tuesday, Aug. 13, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Northstar Adventures, 491 Stevens Road, Unity. Participants will learn to cook meals in the backcountry while helping to support Ecology Learning Center. For more information, visit ecologylearningcenter.org, email ecologylearningcenter@gmail.com or call 230-9275.