The product of a Waldorf elementary school, Maxwell Wishman-Freedner ’20 wanted a school that echoed its project-based pedagogy.
“I was more interested in studying science through nature than classroom labs,” he says. “At Harpswell Coastal Academy (HCA), we did forest inventory and measured trees — we actually researched what we studied. Once we set up camera stands to photograph how coastal landscapes changed over a year’s time.”
Because students advance as they demonstrate proficiency in subject standards (as opposed to the typical trajectory of chronological grade levels), Maxwell was able to skip eighth grade and graduate at 17 years old. “I don’t think I would have done very well in a [traditional] school,” he reflects. “At HCA you can hit the necessary standards in a way that explores your interests, so you are more engaged in classes.” Since he demonstrated a high degree of self-direction, Maxwell was encouraged to pursue independent study projects (ISPs) born of his passion for ecology, such as one dedicated to Charles Darwin’s teachings.
His love of nature was deepened by the school’s outdoor club and its outdoor leadership program. The group backpacked, camped, hiked, and paddled the raw woods and waters of Maine and beyond; the teacher spearheading the group became a mentor who nudged Maxwell into a leadership role. He felt a kinship with the school’s commitment to environmental stewardship: “Doing science-based fieldwork and building a connection with the environment, you feel obligated to protect it.”
The experiences steered him toward Maine’s College of the Atlantic, where he is focusing on wildlife biology. Similar to HCA, its curriculum is malleable to individual pursuits, and he was able to apply tuition funds from a Mitchell Scholarship he applied for during high school, with encouragement from HCA administration. During his junior and senior years, Maxwell took courses at Southern Maine Community College branch in Brunswick, which is right next door to the HCA campus. Through HCA’s dual enrollment program, students can take college courses (up to six credits are even tuition-free) mixed in to their high school class schedule. “I think I would have had a harder time at College of the Atlantic if I hadn’t done independent projects or taken community college classes,” he says. “Before that, I was used to being told what to do — I wasn’t accustomed to so much freedom. Both experiences forced me to set my own deadlines, prioritize, and manage my time, which is what you need to do as a college student.”
The communal aspect of a small-scale institution like HCA engendered friendships with faculty: “It was obvious the teachers really care about HCA and love their jobs — having engaging teachers helps a person learn.” Another upside to a tight-knit environment? Certain soft-skills become vital. “For the number of HCA students, there was a high level of diversity,” says Maxwell. “I learned to get along with many personality types because you are encouraged to interact with everyone and to collaborate with your group during all the project-based learning. It helped me to adapt and to communicate effectively with different types of people.” Such life skills, he says, have helped him navigate college — and the world beyond its walls.