Chewonki Foundation’s announcement that it plans to close the foundation’s elementary and middle school education programs at the end of the current school year has left some local families upset and scrambling for education options.
Citing a lack of long-term financial viability for the education program, Chewonki’s Board of Trustees voted Friday, Nov. 4, to close the schools. Parents were informed via email that same night.
On the evening of Monday, Nov. 7, a Zoom meeting with representatives of the board left some parents seeking answers feeling unsatisfied. According to parents who attended the meeting, the trustees represented by trustees Chair Roseanne Saalfield, Chewonki Vice President of Marketing and Communications Cullen McGough, and Vice President of Finance Carl J. Young, presented the decision as both necessary and final. There was no debate.
Chewonki officials stayed on their talking points, listened as some parents vented, and closed the hour-long meeting promptly at 7 p.m., multiple attendees said.
Saalfield declined requests for comment, deferring to a letter from the board emailed and posted online Monday, Nov. 14. The letter, signed by Saalfield, lauds the program for its effectiveness, stating the teaching techniques Chewonki developed during the school’s existence will profoundly influence the foundation’s approach to education going forward.
“We are grateful for the growth, joy, and lifelong learners this school has created over the years,” Saalfield said in the letter.
However, although there is “great sadness in the decision,” the letter cited the lingering impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically a large debt load accrued during the crisis, a tight labor market, and inflationary pressures prompted the decision to close.
“The trustees’ decision to close the school is driven by the economics of the program, and the fact that we do not see a model of financial viability in the near or long term for this small school at Chewonki … We cannot sustain deficits that have grown to their present size without the measures we are taking at this time,” Saalfield said in the letter.
According to Chewonki parent Maria Vettesse, it felt like the trustees had already made up their minds before the Nov. 7 meeting. Vettesse said she is aware private schools frequently approach parents for help with funding issues, yet in this case there was no effort to reach out for support.
“There was no discussion. There was no transparency,” Vettesse said. “It really felt like having the door closed. That doesn’t feel right.”
Vettesse is one of a number of Chewonki parents who moved to the area so their child could enroll in Chewonki’s school. The place-based education philosophy Chewonki offered is such an attraction that Vettesse and her partner moved to Newcastle to be near the school. Previously, Vettesse commuted from the couple’s home in Portland to the now-shuttered Juniper Hill School in Alna.
“We put all our eggs into applying for Chewonki,” Vettesse said. “We were planning on being part of that community for the next 11 years. Now I feel like a fool. My partner Christopher and I, we’re asking ourselves ‘what did I miss?’”
Until news of the board’s decision broke Nov. 4, Vettesse said her experience at the school and with the staff were entirely positive.
“The families feel mostly disappointed that we were not given the opportunity to problem solve,” Vettesse said. “Honestly, that is what we were calling for on Monday. What do we need to do? We feel we are meeting our responsibilities by saying ‘what do we need to do?’ They are not doing their part by saying ‘we’re done.’”
Like Vettesse, new Wiscasset residents Kat Saunders and George Stoyle said they were shocked by the board’s decision. Stoyle and Saunders moved from Virginia this summer, closing on a house and moving in August, after deciding to commit to the area for the purposes of their child’s education.
That commitment includes beginning the application process for a green card, beginning necessary renovations on their new house, and adopting a rescue dog. Originally from the United Kingdom, the couple lived in Virginia for the previous five years before moving this summer.
Stoyle and Saunders said they moved to the area expecting to be part of the Chewonki community for the next eight years or more.
“We planned on Chewonki being a big part of our lives,” Stoyle said. “Suddenly everything is thrown into chaos.”
“We feel the elementary education Chewonki stands for is the heart and soul of the program,” Saunders said. “That is why we came here, to be a part of this community.”
Like other parents contacted, Stoyle and Saunders spoke highly of the school staff, who were every bit as welcoming and professional as one could have hoped. While they were looking to close on a house in July, Stoyle and Saunders toured the school with their child. Stoyle said he believes school officials were aware the couple was looking to move to the area in order to be close to Chewonki, but they were given no indication the program was in danger of closing.
“We had no idea there were financial issues,” Stoyle said. “If there was any indication they would close by the end of this first year that certainly would have affected our decision.”
Chewonki launched its elementary school as a pilot class for grades three through five, serving nine students in September 2015. In February 2016, a unanimous vote by the Chewonki Foundation Board of Directors made the pilot school a “permanent part,” of the foundation’s programming.
One positive, multiple parents said, is the supportive community created among the parents of the 44 students currently enrolled in the school.
“The silver lining in all this is the parents are really motivated to continue,” Stoyle said. “The positive connection gives me reason for hope.”