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July 11, 2011

Back to school | Good Will-Hinckley undertakes a painful rebirth to become Maine's only agricultural academy

Photo/Amber Waterman Former Obama administration official Glenn Cummings is heading up the revival of Good Will-Hinckley
Photo/Amber Waterman Larry Sterrs, head of the Unity Foundation and former chair of Good Will-Hinckley's board, was instrumental in developing a new direction for the school

The campus of Good Will-Hinckley appears on Route 201 somewhat unexpectedly, a swath of green lawn stretching to a series of stately buildings set back from the road. A stone gate opens to a walkway leading to the school’s library, a columned and silver-domed structure modeled after Thomas Jefferson’s much larger Monticello. Cottage-style residence halls perch on the rise of a hill. All in all, the grounds feel like a miniaturized college campus, tucked between the languid activity of downtown Fairfield and the industrial churning of the Sappi paper mill down the road in Skowhegan.

Conspicuously silent on a sunny mid-June day, the campus lawns remain empty of children, as they have since 2009, when Good Will’s residential and most of its educational programs shut down for the first time since the school’s founding in 1889 as a home for needy boys and girls. Policy changes at the state and federal levels drew funding away from group homes like Good Will, leaving the school without a reliable revenue stream.

More than 100 staffers lost their jobs, and just a precious few roam the creaky halls of the main administration building today. Glenn Cummings, Good Will’s new executive director and a former Obama administration official, is leading the school into a new era, one shifting away from social services, a direction that arrived with no small amount of contention and debate about whether the school’s founder, Rev. George Walter Hinckley, would approve. “We’re going back to the theme he believed in, which was an educational focus,” Cummings says, sitting in his office as Rev. Hinckley gazes over him from an imposing oil portrait on a nearby wall. Following a breakneck strategic planning process, which envisioned and mapped out a new future for Good Will in a matter of months, the school is now known as the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences. Its focus now turns to hands-on teaching in agriculture, sustainability, forestry and environmental studies to a mix of day and residential high school students. The first class of about 20 children starts in September. Hopes are to grow to a couple hundred students over the next decade.

Good Will has come a long way, and managed to sustain one day program through the turbulence, but at least one major hurdle remains. The school tapped its $12 million endowment to the tune of $2.4 million, triggering an agreement with the Maine Attorney General’s Office that mandated a new plan for the school. Paying back those funds depends on the expected sale of 680 acres of Good Will’s 2,450-acre campus to Kennebec Valley Community College, which needs the land to expand and pursue a plan to offer the state’s first associate’s degree in agriculture. “If they had an extra six acres, none of this would be happening,” Cummings says. The sale is expected to close this month.

Good Will did score two major victories last month, with the passage of a new law paving the way for charter schools and a state budget that includes money to cover boarding costs.

Under the charter school measure, the public funding allotted to each Maine student can follow that child to Good Will. Previously, Good Will relied on superintendents to allow students to attend, even though it meant less money for their districts.

Cummings, a Democrat and onetime speaker of the Maine House, recalls meeting with Maine’s Republican governor to make his pitch for state funding. Gov. Paul LePage, once a homeless teen facing family troubles but still harboring a desire to succeed, “fits the profile of the kid we’re after,” Cummings says. Still, with even basic programs at risk of losing funds in a tight budget year, Good Will’s funding was anything but certain. “[LePage] said, ‘There’s a lot of bad news in this budget,’” Cummings recalls. “Then the governor added, ‘You’re going to be the good news.’” Good Will is set to receive $330,000 in year one and $530,000 in year two for boarding costs. The school’s $4 million budget accounts for a cost of $26,000 per student annually for tuition and room and board.

For many close to the school, the recent good news comes as sweet reward after a wrenching process of balancing varying visions for the historic institution, and of weighing Good Will’s legacy against its modern financial realities.

Making a plan

In a small room on the second floor of Good Will-Hinckley’s administration building, several poster board projects lean against a wall. Each represents a child’s desire to attend this new academy, with reflections on three topics: their experience in school, where they hope to go in life and why they’re a good fit for Good Will. Eight students have been accepted to the school so far, and another 20 are under consideration, according to Emanuel Pariser, Good Will’s education program designer.

The applications range from neatly written accounts on lined notebook paper to dynamic collages kinetic with children’s personal stories. One, from a boy who struggles to focus in class with other students around, shows a photo of bullets from a deer he shot last year, illustrating his interest in the outdoors. Another, with the words “family” and “track” clipped from newspapers and pasted onto a black background, tells the story of a kid who both volunteers to help the homeless and is on the brink of being kicked out of school. A third application, constructed of bright green cardboard, shares how nice it would be to stay after school to finish homework, rather than trying to focus in a hectic home environment.

The applications are the culmination of a strategic action process that began in September 2009, as Good Will faced perhaps the biggest challenge in its 120-year history. State policy had shifted abruptly away from funding residential centers like Good Will, in favor of reuniting troubled kids with their families. “The need for what Good Will did never went away,” says Larry Sterrs, former chair of the school’s board who organized a committee to tackle a new vision for Good Will. “What went away was the state policy that provided referrals.” The school’s tax filings show revenues of $5.1 million in 2008, compared to $11.6 million the prior year. After expenses, the organization was in the hole by more than $5 million in 2008.

The committee, a mix of private sector and nonprofit professionals — plus a monitor appointed by the attorney general’s office — put in more than 4,000 volunteer hours and interviewed upwards of 150 organizations and individuals, as well as hired a Portland research firm to survey 220 people about the school’s mission. “We basically grabbed the organization by the horns and shook hard,” says Sterrs, head of the nonprofit Unity Foundation and a former telecom executive.

The group recommended developing a “more contemporary mission,” including establishing a presence off campus, establishing new leadership and partnering with an outside organization. “Probably one of the more radical recommendations was to sell some of that real estate,” Sterrs says. Many Good Will alumni opposed that decision, and a group of them have pledged to file suit against any potential buyers. The school’s north campus is also being eyed for potential future sales. “We weren’t selling buildings and land, we were selling their homes, where they grew up,” Sterrs says. But the land represents an asset the school can’t overlook, and from a business perspective, the sale is a “no-brainer,” he says.

The committee also recommended setting up a foundation to make grants and manage the school’s stock portfolio and endowment. “It’s a 100-plus-year-old organization, and it needed to turn on a dime,” Sterrs says. “A lot of minds had to change and a lot of hearts had to be broken.” Sterrs now refers to Good Will as a “120-year-old startup.” “They shot the sacred cow and served the hamburgers,” he says of his committee members. “They saved that place.” Ralph Lancaster, the Pierce Atwood attorney appointed by the AG’s office to observe the committee’s process, left his stint impressed. “I think it’s excellent,” he says of the new vision for the school. “I think it’s a win-win-win situation for Good Will, the community college and the state.”

The committee members also had some outside help. A group of eight professionals — organized by Tom Davis, CEO of Skills Inc., an area nonprofit that serves adults with developmental disabilities, and then head of the Maine Association of Nonprofits — met with Good Will’s administration and board three times. “We tried to give them a series of unvarnished recommendations,” Davis says. “Some of them got lost, some of them got changed, but they took the process to heart.” Those in Good Will’s community were stunned to see the school unravel, Davis says. “Their donor well reads like a who’s who of Maine philanthropy and business,” he says. It was inconceivable that the organization wouldn’t find a way to move forward, Davis says. “When it all fell apart, it just seemed to be emblematic of all the problems nonprofits were going through,” he says. “And I thought, ‘If they can’t make it, who can?’”

The events of the next 100 days, including the land sale, will prove critical to Good Will’s success, he says. “I think they have a chance to pull this off; they’ve got a long uphill battle ahead of them.”

Next steps

Glenn Cummings, dressed casually in khakis and a button-down shirt, leans into his aging Honda Civic to retrieve a pair of sunglasses. Embarking on a tour of the campus on a bright June day, he stops and points in the direction of the Moody School, a facility on the Good Will campus Cummings wants to renovate to become the academy’s central learning site. He just needs to raise $3 million first.

His predecessor, Rev. Hinckley himself, was a tenacious fund-raiser, tapping money from church collection plates and influential New England families alike to feed Maine’s orphaned sons and daughters. Private donations are also in the works today, though Cummings declined to be more specific. A longtime benefactor of Good Will, the Harold A. Alfond Foundation, has remained mum on whether it will help fund the new Maine Academy of Natural Sciences. In 2009, the foundation denied Good Will’s request for $12 million, after an outside report found managers there had failed to develop a survival strategy for the school in light of declining state revenues.

Much faith has been placed in Cummings, who left a job as deputy assistant secretary of education with the Obama administration to return to Maine. He’d been applying for college presidency positions when Good Will came on his radar screen, and it’s hard not to wonder if someone with his resume will stick around at a school for troubled kids in rural central Maine. “This is an important time to have a steady hand,” he says, adding that he’s in negotiations with the board for a two-year contract.

“[Cummings] brings great knowledge, great experience and great interest in young children,” says Donald Marden, a member and former chair of Good Will’s board and a retired Superior Court justice. Rev. Hinckley, a friend of his father’s, was never a man resistant to change, and Marden believes Hinckley would approve of Good Will’s future, especially with closing the school’s doors as the only alternative. “I think he would say, in today’s world, this is a reasonable approach.”


Jackie Farwell, Mainebiz senior writer, can be reached at



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