Lēza Packard, head of school at Ecology Learning Center, said the year is off to a great start at the school's new location in the former Unity Foundation building at 230 Main St. “We have been enthusiastically busy,” she told The Republican Journal Dec. 16.

“We’ve been planning the school for six years,” she said, “and certainly didn’t think we would be opening during a pandemic.”

The school was approved by the Maine Charter School Commission in Augusta last year and is the last and smallest charter school in the state. The commission authorizes up to 10 public charter schools throughout the state, ELC being the 10th and final school.

Deeply rooted in ecology and hands-on learning, ELC is tuition-free and open to any Maine high school student in grades nine and 10.

Last summer, Unity Foundation agreed to sell to the school its building across from Clifford Commons. The two-story brick building provides more than enough room for the 47 students currently enrolled in the school, according to Packard.

“We are honored to be repurposing the building,” she said. “We feel we are accomplishing the vision of Bert and Coral Clifford,” who commissioned the construction of the building and believed in supporting education, economic development and civic improvement.

Packard said the school always envisioned a collaboration with Regional School Unit 3, and added that it is “delighted” with the budding partnership that has developed.

RSU 3 Superintendent Charles Brown said he had spoken with Packard about the possibility of ELC's opening within the district in 2019, and has provided guidance since then.

Back then, RSU 3 officials realized they could not stop the school from opening and possibly competing with the school district. “We would lose subsidies for students that go to the ecology school,” he said.

“We can’t stop it from coming,” he said, and then shifted his thinking to ask instead, “How can we work together?”

In researching what had been done in the past with collaborations between charter and public schools, Brown discovered there was nothing to use as a model.

The district and ELC drew up an agreement to share the costs of transportation, provide students with special education programming (individualized education programs), and health consultations including vision and hearing screenings, with a traveling nurse servicing ELC, he said.

Students at ELC can also participate in RSU 3 athletics and students can take any course at Mount View High School.

Packard said three students from ELC played soccer at Mount View in the fall, along with one student who was on the cheering squad and one who plans to play basketball.

She said so far they have not received any inquiries from RSU 3 students to take courses at ELC, and added that because of limited space at the school and current COVID space requirements, they could not accommodate such a request at present. She hopes the school will be in a position to offer more "down the road."

Brown said the partnership is, “an open-door collaboration to provide what’s best for students in our community.”

“We thought it was a unique opportunity,” he said. No one else has provided such collaboration because of the fear that charter schools would draw down student population and the district would lose subsidy funds.

In the agreement, Brown said, “we provide services within our scope. We are trying to share costs, not trying to incur additional costs.

“We are not going to hire more staff to help service ELC. They can’t expect us to take on more,” he said.

Transportation is the biggest piece, he said, with students coming from all over. “They come to our catchment area and we provide buses from there,” he said. If they would like to go on a field trip, transportation is provided at a cost.

Packard said, to date, her school has done several walking field trips in the town where transportation was not needed. ELC has participated in community service projects at the Field of Dreams, cleaning up garbage and learning about life skills at the park. Students also volunteered at Triplet Park doing trail maintenance.

Demonstrating his commitment to making the partnership work, at the start of this school year, RSU 3 started a week late, while ELC began as scheduled. The district provided buses, but was short on drivers, so Brown volunteered as a van driver, picking up ELC students for the start of the new school year.

“It is a positive relationship and we are looking for more ways to work together,” he said. “Opening a charter school in a pandemic …. Kudos to her.”