This story was originally published Aug. 9, 2017.
For most kids, school is a focus on those three R’s: reading, writing and arithmetic. But more and more, educators are trying to teach students skills they’ll need on the job, too, such as work ethic and teamwork. At one coastal Maine school, that curriculum includes real work.
On a small plot of land behind the Harpswell Coastal Academy, sixth-grader Easton Dundore scoops shovelfuls of mulch into a small hoop house he helped design to grow vegetables. Dundore says he spends most school days out here, working with three or four other students.
“So this project is mostly for like, team building and career development. And communication,” he says. “I feel like it’s good hands-on work. I feel like that connects to my brain and helps me learn better. I think if I was inside writing papers about career development, it would almost be a little less effective than being out here, doing this, with other people.”
It’s a little odd to hear a sixth-grader talk about career development. But here, that’s actually the goal.
The Harpswell Coastal Academy formed about five years ago, when some Harpswell residents began to voice concerns about their coastal fishing village. The number of commercial fishing and harvesting licenses in the community was on the decline, down by more than 25 percent since 2000.
School founder John D’Anieri says residents began to worry that, faced with an unclear future, many students might become disengaged from school. They were concerned that more might drop out or leave the state.
“That a lot of our kids aren’t able to envision a future for themselves,” he says. “And they particularly aren’t able to find a way to live in Maine.”
“They don’t see the connection between school and the real world,” says Harpswell farmer and parent Joe Grady, who helped found the school.
Grady says he and others wanted their kids to better connect with their community.
“I think it’s important for kids everywhere, not just here,” he says. “I think the sooner that school mirrors the world a little closer, the better everyone’s going to be.”
Their solution was to form this charter school, the Harpswell Coastal Academy, based on an idea of “work-based learning.” To put kids in the community and teach them how to work.
Teacher Micah Depper says that work starts as soon as a kid shows up. He says the school still has standard math and English class inside the classroom. But some kids spend a lot of their day outside, working on big projects, like designing a greenhouse or building an outdoor classroom.
Depper says the goal of these projects is to teach students skills that he says employers are looking for.
“The ability to show up on time. Taking initiative in your learning,” he says. “And one way we emphasize that is through a ‘student as worker’ model. Our students help serve lunch. They take turns cleaning up the lunch room. Taking out the trash. Yes, cleaning the bathrooms.”
In high school, students then have to use skills at internships with local businesses. Like here at a Brunswick restaurant called the New Beet Market, where Harpswell senior Karli Clark mashes up vegetables and naan bread.
The market provides school lunch to the Harpswell Coastal Academy and also takes on about four paid interns from the school. They do everything from dishwashing to designing school lunch menus to working on finances. Students have also worked in art studios and local conservation groups.
Ivan Charner, the director of the National Institute for Work and Learning, says this approach has been a part of education for decades. In fact, it was reported in 2008 that more than 60 percent of schools offered some form of work-based learning, whether that was internships or workplace tours.
But he says schools rarely go as far as Harpswell has. And he says it’s important to ensure that students aren’t just doing manual labor, but connecting the work to academics.
“So the learning part for me is the most important part of any kinds of work-based learning program,” Charner says.
Staff say every project on campus integrates those ideas together, but they’re still working on strengthening this connection in the community internships.
And there have been other challenges, too. New Beet Market owner Jamie Pacheco laughs and says that while she believes kids need to learn business skills, some haven’t been able to make it through their entire internship.
“So it can be very interesting, or challenging, trying to teach somebody that role,” Pacheco laughs. “Some kids, they get it like that. Some kids we don’t really need to say anything to. And some kids are more difficult to reach.”
But ultimately, Grady says he hopes this work will give students a connection to their community that they might not get otherwise.
“There’s this idea that we want to create things in these communities that kids are excited to be a part of,” he says. “That’s how they stay here as adults.”
Whether that happens won’t be known for years or even decades. But Grady says he hopes these students can stay and help to create a new economy in coastal Maine.