While all of Maine's 174 school districts have been given the "green" designation by the Department of Education, indicating a low risk of transmitting COVID-19, many schools are opting to reopen this fall following a hybrid or remote instruction model.

Kylie Bragdon, executive director of Maine Ocean School, said in a conversation with The Republican Journal Aug. 19 that this fall the school is offering a new all-virtual option for students, besides its hybrid and in-person opportunities, that is creating quite a buzz.

"We're taking a really challenging situation and making the best of it, and sensing some success," she said, referring to a 70% increase in enrollment.

The school encompasses grades nine to 12 and opened in the fall of 2018 with 12 students. It is a specialized public school known as a magnet school, funded by both private and state funds, and open to any student interested in Maine's maritime heritage.

It is one of only two schools in the state that offer such specialized programming — the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone, with 156 students, is the other.

When the last school year ended, the Ocean School had 14 students. It also had its first commencement ever, with three students graduating.

Bragdon said all three students went on to their first choice of colleges — two are going to Maine Maritime Academy in Castine and one is attending University of King's College in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

This year the school has accepted an additional nine students so far, and with the virtual or remote learning option, applications are coming in from across the country. The school has received applications from an Alaskan student, one from California, others from New Hampshire and Rhode Island, Bragdon said.

"We have accepted several students from out of state," she said, "including three students living on their families' sailboats as they travel the East Coast, anywhere between Maine and the Bahamas."

Bragdon said one sailboat is 60 feet, while the other two are in the 30- to 60-foot range.

With the onset of COVID-19, she has noticed many families deciding to home-school their children on ships. "Once they get to the seventh grade," she said, "parents seek additional support.

"I can't think of a better way to totally immerse yourself," she said.

The digital program is also available to any student in Maine, "so even kids in Fort Kent can access our unique curriculum," she said. "Kids are going to our school because they are excited about the curriculum we are offering."

The virtual program is so successful, Bragdon said, "because we provide live instruction every day and for every course. Due to this feature, students can access their learning anywhere and (any) time. This, paired with our ocean theme, has made our program a hit."

Bragdon said the school offers the same comprehensive high school curriculum required by DOE, but with an ocean theme. U.S. history will emphasize maritime history, specifically how the country developed along natural shipping channels. Also offered are ocean-style math courses, marine biology and language classes that teach how to communicate in foreign ports.

While the school focuses on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, "someone interested in the humanities can also find their niche," she said. The school also offers college-level courses. Two juniors have started receiving early college credits through these courses, she said.

Because of its relatively small student body, the school can tailor programs to every student. "I don't know if anyone can find a more accommodating school district," she said.

The Ocean School has partnered with Regional School Unit 20 to offer its in-person instruction in classrooms at Searsport Middle School. The school's administrative office, located at the Duncan House on the Penobscot Marine Museum campus, is also a partnership.

"The museum and RSU 20 have been great allies for Maine Ocean School," Bragdon said. "I am very excited about this school year. We have very positive things on the horizon. I know it's going to be big."

The school is now taking sponsorships from businesses for its line of apparel in increments of $100 to $1,000. "It's nice for businesses to show their support and market themselves," Bragdon said.

Applications for the fall are being accepted through Oct. 1, with the school aiming for a total of 30 students. For more information or to apply, visit maineoceanschool.org.