SEARSPORT — Now that the Legislature has charted a new direction for Maine Ocean School, school officials and staff have been reworking the curriculum for its new, program-based model while simultaneously seeking a school partner and recruiting students for its fourth year.

Legislation spearheaded by Rep. Scott Cuddy of Winterport and signed into law this spring decrees that Maine Ocean School “transition from a public magnet school to an educational program-based model focused on marine-related science technology, engineering and mathematics.”

Among other requirements, the school has until 90 days after the Legislature’s adjournment next June to develop new funding and supervisory models. Its new supervisory model could involve joining Regional School Unit 20 or another educational partner as a certificate-granting program, instead of operating as a standalone, diploma-granting educational institution.

Sunset clause inhibited school growth

Opened in the fall of 2018, the Maine School for Marine Science, Technology, Transportation and Engineering, aka Maine Ocean School, was saddled with a problematic “sunset clause” that required legislative action every year for the magnet school to retain its funding and continue operating.

Dr. Kylie Bragdon, the school’s executive director, told The Republican Journal that the sunset clause has been a “huge deterrent in the school’s capacity to grow the last three years.”

“I was hired in July of 2019,” she said. “The school didn’t realize that clause existed until the beginning of August, and we had about two weeks to change that law, so that’s a challenge, and then having to cycle through each year — that makes (growth) impossible because there’s no stability for families.”

Recognizing that the sunset clause in the enabling legislation created an untenable situation for the school, Cuddy, D-Dist. 98 (Searsport, Frankfort, Swanville and Winterport), took up the challenge in the state House. Working with then-Sen. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, on the Senate side, they were able to extend the sunset clause for a year with emergency action in 2019; extensions passed again in 2020 and 2021.

This year, Cuddy’s amended bill eliminates that clause altogether. “I am extremely pleased that we’ve landed on a solution that empowers the school, rather than the Legislature, to set the course for its future,” he said in a press release when his bill was signed by the governor.

School has a year to ‘plug in’ its program

Former Dist. 98 Rep. James Gillway, who originally championed establishing Maine Ocean School and now serves on the board of its fundraising arm, the Maine Ocean School Foundation, also is pleased with the change. “The sunset clause originally was there in case we didn’t succeed in starting a school,” he told The Journal. “We succeeded — we delivered on starting a school. The sunset clause then should have gone away.

“Each year the sunset clause has been held over the school’s head has made it very difficult for recruiting and retention. … It stymied the confidence of people to send their kids to the school,” Gillway said.

In addition, the new legislation gives the school “a year or so to figure out where to plug in” the Maine Ocean School program, whether “through the RSU or through the vocational school or through some other partnership with another entity,” he said.

Cuddy first got involved with the issue when he ran against Gillway in 2016. “Voters told me how important the school was,” he told The Journal. “I lost that election but I called Jim and asked how I could help with the school. I wound up volunteering on a few committees, and really understood how good this school was going to be.”

He won the seat in 2018 and again in 2020, and both the sunset clause and the school’s funding were still problems. “The Maine Ocean School should have been funded as a new school, under the charter school funding formula,” Cuddy said, noting that “the school is not, and has never been, a charter school.”

“This means the school should have received a little more each year than it did,” he said, adding that he was able to take the issue to the Department of Education and get that problem rectified.

“I believe strongly in the school,” he said. “I believe in the people who run it, who volunteer for it, and in the students who attend it. Although the method is changing, the mission is largely the same. The Maine Ocean School will continue educating Maine kids in the maritime skills that Maine is steeped in.

“The new model of a certificate-granting program will give the school flexibility to do what it does best,” he added, “while leaving the core elements of a high school education to a different institution. I’m excited to see what they do next.”

Considering a career-focused, half-day program

To that end, Bragdon said she and the school’s trustees and staff “have been working rigorously to try and outline an alternative, more focused curriculum, where instead of providing all of the courses that would typically be provided in a high school curriculum, we’re doing the things that we do the best, and that really is the ocean-themed, career-focused base courses.”

For the next year, the school will offer “more of a half-day program approach” in which students “would come to us for half a day to receive this specialized training. During this time they would work on leadership skills, nautical skills — anything from knot-tying to safety standards to engineering principles.”

The goal is that “students will eventually obtain some sort of professional credentialing through our program that will allow them to more easily transition into university, or directly into the workforce, should they decide to do so,” Bragdon said, citing OSHA shipyard training as “a really great example” of a program that would then take students a step closer to starting out as a deck hand.

“There are certainly a lot of possibilities right now,” Bragdon said. “We’re trying to retain some level of normalcy as the curriculum and the general school structure (are) going to be changing. I think for this upcoming year we’ll remain housed inside the Searsport school district building.

“We’ve had a wonderful relationship with them,” she said. “They really have been the best allies for our program, so I’m excited and confident in continuing that relationship into the next year.

“And after that, really it’s up to the Legislature and the Board of Trustees to determine … what this is going to look like.”

Applications open for coming school year

Meanwhile, Bragdon said, “We are exploring all collaboration opportunities with other academic institutions” while also “beginning the recruitment and application process for upcoming school year.” Anyone interested in pursuing a maritime education at Maine Ocean School “can reach out to the school directly” through its website, maineoceanschool.org.

Although Bragdon declined to name any of those academic institutions, Assistant Dean Patricia Libby of the University of Maine Hutchinson Center indicated, in committee testimony this spring, that the Hutchinson Center itself was exploring a new business model and might be interested in a Maine Ocean School collaboration.

“I anticipate the curriculum and program that has been developed by Maine Ocean School will play a large role in addressing the needs of the marine trades and could be an asset to the Hutchinson Center’s new mission and business model,” Libby said.