A former science teacher will lead Harpswell Charter School through a tumultuous year

New interim head of school Mel Christensen Fletcher stands outside Harpswell Coastal Academy on July 5, 2022. Three yurts will be installed nearby later this month. John Terhune / The Times Record

One battle for survival over, another on the way.

Thanks to months of effort by Harpswell Coastal Academy faculty and staff and an outpouring of community support, the charter school defied the odds in May by getting permission to consolidate its two campuses, a move officials say is necessary to to keep the school financially viable. Now that HCA staff and volunteers have spent the month of June transporting boxes and furniture from Brunswick to Harpswell, the school’s new interim principal, Mel Christensen Fletcher, will try to lead the institution through consolidation and renewal of its charter with the state.

“It’s been a lot the last few months,” Christensen Fletcher said.

Christensen Fletcher, who has taught high school science at HCA for the past seven years, played a key role in helping the school get through a difficult spring, according to administrator Angie Arndt.

“From the moment we found out we were under the Hart Commission’s microscope, Mel just blew us away,” Arndt said. “She’s just calm, keeping her eyes on the prize. This is what will serve us all.”

Earlier this year, school officials discovered that persistently low enrollment, exacerbated by the pandemic, was making the two-campus school system financially unviable. Although HCA’s future looked bleak, Christensen Fletcher worked with outgoing school principal Scott Barksdale and others to craft a consolidation plan, a $200,000 gambit that would include installing three yurts in Harpswell to make room for about 100 high school students at the school.

“She had the positive energy that was just what we needed to lift people out of despair,” HCA board chair Cynthia Shelmerdine said of Christensen Fletcher. “She hit the spot.”

When Barksdale announced she would retire in late spring, Christensen Fletcher jumped at the opportunity to help manage the consolidation project, she said. She applied for the position of interim school principal and got it within a week.

Born in Brunswick and Harpswell, Christensen Fletcher was initially drawn to HCA because of the school’s project-based curriculum and environmental focus. Yet thanks to the school’s approach to shared decision-making, she soon found a passion for helping shape its mission and policies.

“(HCA) was created less than 10 years ago and is still being created in many ways,” Christensen Fletcher said. “I want to be involved in this next chapter.”

The packed contents of the former HCA campus in Brunswick sit at Harpswell High School on July 5, 2022. John Terhune / The Times Record

In order for the school to continue operating this year, it will need to win the approval of the Charter School Commission. Although the Commission voted 4-1 in May to approve HCA’s consolidation plan, it also shared concerns about the school’s low enrollment and high chronic absenteeism rate.

“It’s off to a good start,” Commission Chairman Wilson Hess said after the consolidation vote. “But this is just the beginning. A lot of work remains.”

As they await the arrival and installation of the new yurts later this month, the school’s families and teachers are working to promote HCA to potential students to drive enrollment, Shelmerdine said.

“We need to do a lot better at enrollment,” she said. “It all comes down to enrollment.”

While Christensen Fletcher helped craft the school’s new strategies to increase enrollment, others are leading those efforts, she said. Instead, the former science teacher’s focus is on developing a new five-year vision for HCA that includes expanding and refining the flexible and experiential curriculum that sets it apart from traditional public schools.

“What I really love about HCA is that our curriculum is designed by us with our students to be authentic and relevant to them,” she said. “That ‘what do you want to be when you get on?’ question probably won’t be one thing. We try to make sure our students leave here with experiences that prepare them for different kinds of things after HCA.”

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