Taylor Hamilton, Hannah Mellor, and Kamren Start (left to right), freshmen at the Maine Ocean School, work together on a biology project. “I always enjoyed school,” Start said, "but now it’s like a privilege to go to school because it’s everything I want to learn.” Only twelve students attend the public magnet high school for marine science, engineering, technology, and transportation based in Searsport. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

On a raw February day, freshman biology students at the Maine Ocean School sprawled on the floor of a classroom at the Hutchinson Center to make board games for a science project.

As a group of girls sketched pictures of a giant squid and a killer whale on large sheets of cardboard, it wasn’t immediately apparent that they were pioneers of a sort.

The teens belong to the inaugural class of 12 students attending the state’s second magnet school, which opened last September. The Maine Ocean School aims to provide a theme-based education focused on the state’s maritime connection and heritage, and students can focus on marine science, technology, transportation and engineering.

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Those are lofty goals for a school that is still hammering out critical details such as its lack of a dedicated building, dormitory and funding formula that would allow the school to fulfill its mission.

Nevertheless, students such as Kamren Start, a chatty 14-year-old from Islesboro who wants to be a marine biologist and get her captain’s license someday, seemed glad to be there.

“I love it. It’s great — I get to hang out with kids who make me laugh all the time. It feels like a small, tight-knit community, and it’s everything I ever wanted to learn,” she said, adding that her favorite class so far has been navigation. “Probably everyone’s favorite thing is plotting a course.”

Return to maritime traditions

The simple fact that the Maine Ocean School exists at all is somewhat remarkable, because former Gov. Paul LePage planned to veto legislation to establish the maritime-focused magnet school in 2015.

But the governor waited too long to veto it and 64 other bills, which then became state law.

Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik

James Gillway, the Searsport town manager and four-term Republican state representative who proposed the bill, doesn’t care that his bill navigated a harrowing course to become a law.

“It’s such a phenomenal concept, to bring a maritime high school to a maritime state that you have to make it work some way,” said Gillway, who is the chairman of the board of directors for the Maine Ocean School Foundation. “And they’re doing it. We have our first cohort of kids. They’re very flexible. They’re willing to tolerate some change, and it’s just been great. Come spring, when they get back on the water and back on the beach, it’ll ramp up some more. I can’t wait.”

Originally, creating a magnet school was conceived as a way to help Regional School Unit 20 in Searsport and Stockton Springs remain viable and bolster its low enrollment.

“There was a sense of urgency,” Gillway said.

He and other supporters had to do their homework to convince legislators that a second magnet school would be a good thing for Maine. The first, the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone, was created by the Legislature in 1995.

“There’s so much more to this than I think anyone had imagined,” he said.

But the end goal was worth it. Gillway had heard that soon there will be 150,000 maritime jobs available because of the coming “gray tsunami” in which a large bloc of Maine’s longtime maritime professionals will be retiring in the next decade.

They are good jobs, he said.

“We have to do more to get the word out that these satisfying careers are out there,” he said. “A lot of people immediately go to money, but that’s not what I’m talking about. It is satisfying to say you’ve done this. Weathered the storm, delivered the goods, or helped the environment. Those jobs, beyond the pay, are satisfying to people.”

Searsport, which was the site of a mid-19th century school to learn maritime skills, still is the right place for this kind of school, he said.

“I just think this has got the potential of being a top marine high school in the country. It needs a little time, but it’ll get there,” he said. “And I’m happy for the region. Having a school like this, where the kids are excited, it’s going to have some long-lasting effects.”

‘Scrappy startup’

On a typical day at the Maine Ocean School, students from as far away as Kennebunk and Waldoboro, and as close as Stockton Springs, gather in the morning at a house at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport. Then they may travel for classes to the University of Maine Hutchinson Center in Belfast, the Waldo County YMCA, Searsport District High School, meaning that students are often on the go. Leslie Gregory, one of the school’s two teachers, said that there are a lot of moving parts, but that it is working, in part because the community really wants it to.

“People just stop us on the street and ask how they can help,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of guest speakers. I feel like the kids are exposed to more generational support. It’s pretty awesome, and it’s great for kids to see.”

Meg Begley, the other teacher, said that the Maine Ocean School is open to every Maine student, not just those at the top of their class.

“If you have a passion for the ocean, this is a great place to come,” she said. “These kids are so excited to learn stuff in the field. We have so much flexibility. We’re not stuck in a classroom every day.”

Charlie Spinney, 17, is from Kennebunk, but has been staying with a host family in Searsport.

“I saw the school [was taking applicants] when it was first posted,” he said. “I go lobstering and stuff, and I figured it would be a good fit.”

Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

Another student, 16-year-old May Young of Brooks, said that she is glad she gave the Maine Ocean School a try.

“I just wanted more focus in what I was interested in, and I’m interested in boats,” she said. “I really like it here. I like the science classes, I really like navigation, and I really like the people here.”

School officials are hoping that they will enroll 30 students next year, and more in the years after that. Meanwhile, they are working on making the school more sustainable.

Currently, the state pays about $10,600 per student, which is similar to how charter schools are funded. There isn’t a dormitory, so that students who live too far to commute, like Spinney, need to be placed with host families.

“We have enough funding to survive as a scrappy startup, but we need to develop a model that will accomplish the things a magnet school needs to do,” said John D’Anieri, the interim director of the Maine Ocean School. “It’s a beautiful challenge.”

And one that he realizes the community wants to take on. All those local partners — the Penobscot Marine Museum, RSU 20, the Hutchinson Center and the University of Maine — have been crucial this first year.

“To me, being a collaborationist at my core, this ought to be a kind of rising tide lifts all boats,” D’Anieri said. “All of these folks ought to be able to see long-term benefits. Over time, it ought to be that the more collaborating we can do, the better off we’ll be.”