Chewonki Elementary and Middle School to close in June

Nov. 10—Chewonki Elementary and Middle School in Wiscasset will close in June, eight years after it was launched to provide a place-based education model.

The decision to close came as a shock to parents who say they had no inkling the program was in jeopardy, and who are now trying to figure out where their children will go next year.

"We're absolutely devastated by this news," said Kate Ahalt, whose son is in second grade. "We are in a state of complete grief and confusion."

The Chewonki Foundation board approved the closure during its quarterly meeting on Nov. 4 after it was unable to find a short- or long-term model to financially sustain the program, said spokesperson Cullen McGough. The school accounted for 6% of Chewonki's annual budget and cost more to operate than it brought in through tuition, he said.

Parents were notified that evening in an email from Nancy Kennedy, Chewonki's acting president. In the email, she said it has been "a joy and a privilege" to have students on Chewonki Neck and acknowledged the closure would come as a shock to parents.

"When we began the Elementary and Middle School as a pilot program in 2015, we knew it would take time to grow and thrive, and we were prepared for early financial losses," she wrote. "Unfortunately, it has become clear that even with the school fully enrolled, we do not have a viable financial model to continue the program."

McGough said Chewonki faced significant pressures during the pandemic and the board felt closing the school was the most prudent move for the foundation. The decision is "purely a financial one, which is especially painful for parents and faculty," he said.

There currently are 44 students in first through eighth grades, some of whom come from communities without a public school option and whose tuition is paid for by their town. The staff includes eight full-time and three part-time faculty. In addition to the school, Chewonki offers various camps, outdoor programs and a semester-long program for high school juniors.

Ahalt said parents met with board members over Zoom on Monday, and many were upset by what they feel was a lack of transparency about the financial situation and still wonder if there are ways to save the school.

"There was a lot of frustration from parents at the board's refusal to be open with us," she said. "We don't feel like we have any real answers."

Kevin Green, whose 7-year-old son is in his second year at Chewonki, said he is disappointed that the school will close and frustrated that parents and students don't have a say in the decision. Parents are eager to help find a way to make it sustainable if possible, he said.

Green said his son Marlow loves the hands-on learning model and spending time outside. Marlow spent several days this week writing a letter to the board and has had tough conversations with his parents about the decision, Green said.

Maria Vettese and her family moved to Newcastle from Portland last year to be closer to the school, where her daughter Luna Rose is now in first grade. The family is dedicated to place-based education and also had planned to send their younger child there, she said. News that the school would close came as a shock, she said.

It has been challenging to talk about it with her daughter because Vettesse can't answer all of her questions.

Parents say their students have asked what they can do to keep it open. Luna Rose suggested the students raise money, something her mother said she wishes parents had the opportunity to do. Ahalt said her 7-year-old son Gus asked her if the board would keep the school open if he and his classmates did "their very best writing and very best math," she said.

"It feels hard to not be given a chance to solve a problem, especially in today's world where groups are raising money left and right for things they believe in," Vettesse said.