The Juniper Hill School for Place-based Education has reopened after an abrupt five-week closure that started in January. Meanwhile, the school’s board of trustees is disputing portions of a former administrator’s explanation for the closure.
The board informed families and teachers of the Jan. 22 closure and the need to address “critical challenges” in order “to provide a safe and secure environment for our children” in a Jan. 16 letter. The challenges include “infrastructure, staffing, curricular development, and other apparent inconsistencies,” according to the letter.
However, the board says the school does have a curriculum and policies and has indoor spaces where students can stay warm, contrary to the account from Robin Huntley, a former co-director of the school, and Ona Brazwell, a parent. The board also said their statements about lead in the school’s water lacked context.
The Lincoln County News reported the closure and the reasons for the closure in the Feb. 25 edition, citing interviews with Huntley and Brazwell and correspondence from state and town officials. The board did not comment for the article, despite several interview requests over more than a week prior to publication.
On Tuesday, March 2, board member Jamie Banks answered some questions from the LCN by email and sent the newspaper correspondence and documents regarding the issues.
The board told families in a Feb. 5 email that the school would reopen March 1 with a one-room schoolhouse model. Banks confirmed in a Wednesday, March 3 email that the school had reopened.
Banks said the board has been “working diligently to address all the challenges that have arisen at the school.”
“We believe strongly in the value that Juniper Hill School brings to this community,” Banks said. “The need for outdoor, place- and nature-based education is growing during this time of pandemic because it offers a rich, experiential option for learning. Professional educators have long known that connection to the natural world and the local communities fosters healthy physical, intellectual, and emotional development in our children.”
At the time of the announcement that the school would close, the board had eight members. According to Banks, two members reached the end of their terms and two resigned.
The board currently consists of Chair Warren Miskell, Banks, Jane Carroll, and nonvoting member Anne Stires. Stires founded the school and works as its director of development, outreach, and advocacy.
In a Feb. 2 update to parents, the board said that the state will not hold schools accountable for a minimum number of school days due to the pandemic, citing information from the Maine Department of Education. That means the school will not have to make up days missed during the closure.
The board elaborated on problems at the school in the Feb. 2 email.
“In August of 2020, lead teachers had assumed responsibilities for Co-Directorship, as well as lead teaching. In hindsight, we recognize that we asked too much of these teachers and set expectations that were difficult to meet,” the board said. “This situation was exacerbated by the pandemic. The Board is giving careful consideration to operational infrastructure going forward.”
“The challenge now is to rebuild an infrastructure that is properly resourced, enables the school to function effectively and in accordance with the school’s values, and serves the needs of faculty and students,” the board said in the email.
In a Feb. 5 email, the board informed parents that the school would reopen March 1. According to the email, the one-room schoolhouse model will provide small-group and individual academic instruction for the rest of the school year.
“As mentioned in our earlier communication to parents, central importance will be placed on the arts, physical work and movement, and play/social emotional learning,” the board said in the email. “We intend to maintain this year’s outdoor-based schedule. Instruction that can happen actively will continue to happen outdoors, as well as meals, play, movement, and the arts.”
Huntley had said the school switched from a 60-40 mix of outdoor-indoor time to 100% outdoor at the beginning of the school year. She said that caused problems when the weather grew too cold and the school lacked adequate indoor space.
In the Feb. 5 email, the board explained its plans for cold weather.
“Indoor accommodations will be made during the colder weeks for small rotating groups of children to receive additional academic instruction and provide warming breaks,” the board said.
The board’s communications with parents indicate that tests found elevated levels of lead in water from bathroom faucets — not from the faucet the school uses for drinking water. That faucet “has not shown elevated lead levels since its installation,” according to the Feb. 2 update.
A Feb. 25 email from the board quotes a letter from Mary Bowers, president of Waterworks Management LLC, saying lead and copper was coming from the pipes.
“The lead and copper test that we do twice a year at (Juniper Hill School) is designed to simulate conditions when the internal plumbing of a structure is not used for a long period of time,” Bowers said in the letter. “We sample the ‘first draw’ of water that has been sitting in the pipes six to 10 hours in order to capture the highest lead and copper levels one may be potentially exposed to.”
“After the water has been running for a few seconds, the pipes are purged with fresh water, and the levels of lead and copper fall dramatically to negligible levels,” Bowers said.
According to the letter, lead levels from the kitchen faucet have never exceeded the safe limit of 0.015 milligrams per liter. Levels of 0.018 and 0.019 milligrams per liter were found in three bathrooms.
All water at the school has now tested within normal levels, according to a Jan. 22 email from the board.
Banks said that the board is investigating the number of people who were using the water between spring 2016 and fall 2018.
Brazwell had told the LCN the water at Juniper Hill was not tested during those two-plus years because the school had been deregulated as a public water system based on an inaccurate student count provided by the board at that time. She provided correspondence with a state inspector documenting the deregulation and the inspector’s concerns about possible misrepresentation of the student count.
Huntley and Brazwell raised another health concern involving an outdoor toilet, which they described as a bucket with a toilet lid. They said staff emptied the bucket near an area where students play.
The board did not comment directly on the toilet, but in a Feb. 5 email to a Maine Department of Environmental Protection compliance supervisor, Alna Code Enforcement Officer Tom McKenzie said the board had told him the school was no longer using the bucket and “recognized it was not the correct way to proceed.”
McKenzie said in the email that the board had “plans in the works” to have an alternative toilet designed.
Banks said March 2 that the school does have an “emergent” curriculum and has policies, but did not elaborate. The next day, she said the documents are only available in hard copy and she would contact the school to obtain them.
In a phone interview Wednesday, March 3, Huntley said that if the school has a formal curriculum or policies, they were not shared with teachers or used in classrooms.
“What I know for certain is that in the 2 1/2 years I worked there, no one showed me a policy,” Huntley said.
Huntley said she has worked in four public schools and at each school, she received a staff handbook upon signing her teaching contract. She never received a handbook at Juniper Hill.
She said teachers had no guidelines for assessing students and some teachers did not assess students at all.
Banks also said there are “multiple indoor spaces” at Juniper Hill to keep students warm.
Huntley had said she and her co-director, Adrienne Hoffmann, closed the school for a day in December because it was too cold for kids to be outside and there was not enough indoor space for the students to warm up and maintain physical distancing.
On Friday, Feb. 26, the Alna Board of Selectmen sent a letter to Maine Department of Education Commissioner Pender Makin regarding compliance issues at the school.
In the letter, signed by Second Selectman Doug Baston on behalf of the board, the selectmen said that Alna taxpayers have paid a significant amount of money to send children to Juniper Hill, and the state should have provided more oversight.
Alna families can send their children to private or public elementary schools at town expense as long as the child or children lived in Alna as of June 30, 2018, when residents voted to restrict K-8 school choice.
Part of the decision to restrict school choice “rested on a collective discomfort that our tax dollars were going to an institution that seemed to resist even minimal local oversight and appeared disconnected from the local community in ways that public schools are not,” the selectmen said in the letter.
The selectmen learned of violations at Juniper Hill from the Feb. 25 article in the LCN.
“It is not just the sheer number and seriousness of the health, safety, and educational violations at Juniper Hill, it is the length of time they have been allowed to persist and the inability or unwillingness of the school’s board of directors to exercise their basic responsibilities to the institution and the public,” the selectmen said in the letter.
“This whole situation seems to expose a yawning accountability gap between oversight of public and private schools in Maine that we as local officials are powerless to fill and the state has neglected to fill,” the selectmen said.
The letter urges the commissioner to assure Alna taxpayers that no public funds will go to Juniper Hill until all of the violations have been addressed.
Baston said that as of Tuesday, March 2, the selectmen had not received a response from the commissioner. He said the selectmen had a “back and forth” after the publication of the article and decided to send the letter.
Banks said in an email Tuesday that the board had no comment about the letter, calling it a matter between the town and the Department of Education.