Adam Williams, social studies teacher, moderates a debate about the clean energy corridor on Tuesday, April 27, 2021 at the Ecology Learning Center in Unity. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

UNITY, Maine — Teenagers eagerly spoke up last week at the Ecology Learning Center, a charter high school in Unity, during a vigorous debate about the proposed CMP transmission line corridor.

Their teacher, Adam Williams, had given them assignments to argue either for or against the controversial project, regardless of their own perspective on it.

“We know there are many ways to see one thing,” Williams told the class.

The learning experience is just one way the school stands out, with others including its focus on cultivating compassion, resiliency and an appreciation for both the natural environment and progress. Since September, when the school opened its doors to students for the first time, they have also tapped maple trees to boil syrup, gone on hiking, biking and cross-country ski adventures, and helped maintain the Hills to Sea Trail that runs across Waldo County.

After school, some students reclined with a book in the grass outside or played with one of the two pet hamsters. A couple of friends even scrambled up a tree.

Clockwise from left: Freshman Azure Walauski soaks up some sun after school on Tuesday, April 27, 2021 at the Ecology Learning Center in Unity; Carolyn Phelps (right), a freshman, hangs out in a tree with her friend Emma Wallace after school; Abijah Pignatello, a sophomore, gets on a school bus after school. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

It’s just what Leza Packard, head of school and its founder, had hoped for as she imagined what a charter school rooted in Waldo County — with its many small farms and preponderance of home-schooling families — could look like.

“That first week [after we opened], I kind of felt that I was floating,” she said. “It was so joyful.”

Charter school nuts and bolts

The 48 first-year and sophomore students at the Ecology Learning Center are part of Maine’s newest, smallest and last public charter school. When the state’s charter school law took effect in 2011, it allowed a total of 10 schools to open in the first decade (more could only open later if legislators lift the cap or if one of the existing charter schools in the state closes). By 2016, the first nine schools had opened, leaving a single unclaimed spot, and for a time, it seemed to some that the final slot might never be filled.

“I’m not convinced we’re going to get it at this point,” Roger Brainerd, executive director of the Maine Association of Charter Schools, told the Bangor Daily News in 2017.

But Packard and others behind the Ecology Learning Center had a strong vision, one that incorporated a place-based education model and a focus on farming, forestry and solving ecological problems in Waldo County. In 2019, the Maine Charter School Commission unanimously voted to authorize the school.

Beginning then, school officials worked to enroll its first students and find a home. What they found — the gracious brick building that was the headquarters of the Unity Foundation, a philanthropic organization — is special. Its curved central staircase, gleaming woodwork, high ceilings and huge windows cast a feeling of old-fashioned dignity to the new enterprise.

Vernon Smith (left), Zoie Ward (center) and Azure Walauski read Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” in English class on Tuesday, April 27, 2021, at the Ecology Learning Center in Unity. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

The Unity Foundation was willing to lower the asking price for its building to $400,000, Packard said, and told Ecology Learning Center organizers that if they were able to raise $100,000, the foundation would match it. The school community stepped up to the challenge.

“It’s been wonderful,” Packard said. “We raised over $100,000 in two months during the pandemic. That’s a lot of enthusiasm.”

Charter schools are public schools, and free to attend. State and local operating funds follow each student to the public charter school attended by the student. The charters are essentially treated as their own district, and any student who wants to attend may do so, as long as they don’t exceed the enrollment cap.

“We are truly the only school that’s wide open,” Packard said.

More students will be able to enroll in the coming years, until the high school reaches its planned limit of 100 students. There’s also a cap on the numbers of students who can come from Regional School Unit 3, the district that includes the town of Unity. That is intended to limit the financial harm to the district, which the charter school has a good relationship with, Packard said.

Encouraging notes hang on a wall at the Ecology Learning Center in Unity. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

‘A family feeling’

Still, the majority of students at the Ecology Learning Center live in Waldo County, although some come from farther afield. One of those is Anita Oebel, 16, a sophomore who lives in Newburgh. She had been a student at Hampden Academy, but decided she wanted a change when that school was not working out for her.

“I needed to be in a new environment,” Oebel said.

At the Ecology Learning Center, she has found it, praising the teachers, students, curriculum and the “best lunches,” which the students prepare twice a week for each other.

“I like how the school is based on outdoor activities and ecology itself,” she said. “It’s a nice school with nice people … everyone pretty much gets along.”

Jack Reader, 15, of Belfast had been homeschooled for several years, but the learning center has been an easy transition, he said.

“I like being with all the kids,” he said. “I have a lot of friends here. I like the classes and the teachers.”

Dynalee Shibles, 16, of Thorndike had been a student at Mount View High School, located in her town, until she decided to take a chance on the new, much smaller charter school.

Dynalee Shibles, a sophomre at the Ecology Learning Center in Unity, plays with Happy, one of the school hamsters, after school April 27, 2021. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

“I like being outdoors and the focus on that,” she said.

She enjoyed tapping maple trees this spring to make syrup, and appreciated the fact that she learned a lot about the proposed CMP transmission line corridor while preparing for the debate.

“It felt real,” she said of the debate assignment.

Shibles, who used to “get really bad anxiety and cry” before going to school in the morning, has had a very different experience so far at the Ecology Learning Center. Once this year, she didn’t feel well and stayed home from school, and was sad to not be with her friends.

“There’s a family feeling,” she said.

For Kayla Higgins, the dean of students, there is something special about starting a brand new school.

“The students are here because they chose it,” she said. “They were brave enough to try something new.”

But it’s not always easy, Packard said. Students come from different cultural, political and socioeconomic backgrounds, and just as the last year has been challenging at times for America as a whole, it’s also been true at the school.

Clockwise from left: Teacher Kate Coseo writes on the white board during science class on Tuesday, April 27, 2021 at the Ecology Learning Center in Unity; Sitting in the lobby of the Ecology Learning Center, Kayla Higgins, dean of students, works with Zoie Ward (right) after the school day ended; Anita Oebel, a sophomore, works bus duty after school. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

So the school has embraced restorative justice principles, including empathy, listening and repairing harm.

“That’s our response to challenges as things come up, and they always do,” she said.

For many, the school represents a fresh start, and a chance to create a new kind of community — and education. Its mission includes cultivating compassionate and resilient leaders, and it’s a goal that Packard and others take seriously. She gestured at the five-gallon plastic buckets that sit on top of the student’s lockers which have been decorated with positive words.

“You came here to the Ecology Learning Center. You can decide to be your best self,” she said. “Empty your bucket, and every day you have an opportunity to put goodness in it.”