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Mayoral math and the battle for Baxter Academy

Posted June 27, 2012, at 5:22 p.m.

On June 18, the mayor of Portland came out swinging against the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, one of the first schools eligible to receive a charter from the state.

Like John Henry, Mayor Michael Brennan’s intentions are good, but, ultimately, standing in the way of the march of science is an enterprise doomed to fail.

The claim that Baxter will hurt public schools is bunk. Whatever one thinks of religious schools or charter schools in general, the promotion of math and science is nonpartisan and should not become a casualty of ideology ― unless you support charter schools for ideological reasons, in which case, right on.

Other than the one-time transition costs of moving students to a new place of instruction, how can it hurt the city to shift students to Baxter from the ordinary public schools? Presumably the school district gets enough money to teach the students it’s actually teaching. If it’s getting more, then an accountant needs to be hired ― or fired.

I concede I could be missing something here. Like many Americans, I’m not good with numbers: In the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment, America ranked 31st in math out of 65 countries or country-size entities.

Not only is there is a great need to increase the numbers of children going into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields ― over 55 percent of all Americans who received a math Ph.D. in 2008 went to foreign nationals ― there is also a need to support children with special talents in math and science for the sake of scientific progress itself. The Baxter Academy for Technology and Science will help ensure that.

Finally, Mayor Brennan charged that Baxter was doing nothing new. As a member of Baxter’s advisory board, I can categorically refute that: Except for Superintendent Ronald Ross’s districts in New York State, I do not know of any school in the country as willing to take on research mathematicians, including the Maine School of Science and Mathematics.

In February 2010, I spoke in Limestone on the topic, “How to Fall in Love with Mathematics.” A math teacher at the school, who has since been promoted, wrote to me afterwards: “Thanks for the talk when you came up to MSSM. You wouldn’t believe it but I had a couple of students come in asking for open problems and one of them was a student who I didn’t think was that into math.” Yet there was no follow-up. Besides, Limestone is too far away to help students in most of Maine.

Similarly, my offer to help the new STEM school in Bangor fell on deaf ears.

Mayor Brennan and Baxter should come together to apply for grants that will help all the children of Portland: A director of advanced mathematics at Baxter could also teach children gratis at Portland’s other public schools. I am currently a math consultant for the Greenburgh Central 7 School District in Hartsdale, N.Y., but children from neighboring schools are welcome to attend my talks.

Together, Brennan and Baxter could offset the $800,000 shortfall the mayor and others predict for Portland’s schools should Baxter enroll 100 students by applying for grants from Raytheon, whose CEO gave $850,000 to Tuskegee University to support African-Americans in science. (Of course, it might help if there were some actual African-Americans involved.)

The Department of Homeland Security also has STEM initiatives. In 2005, the New York State Board of Regents considered my initiative to create a Homeland Security program at a school. In 2007, a school district in Maryland successfully obtained funding from various homeland-security-related entities.

When I was a student, all the superstars in math competitions seemed to come from specialized schools such as the Bronx School of Science. All the math superstars when I was an undergraduate at Harvard University seemed to have this advantage as well. As a defender of unions and public schools, I sympathize with the mayor’s position in general, but the political opposition to charter schools should not get in the way of advancing science and technology in the United States.

The Baxter Academy for Technology and Science could be Mayor Brennan’s greatest legacy ― and Maine’s next bright star.

Dr. Jonathan David Farley is a mathematics consultant and an associate professor of computing and information science and mathematics and statistics at the University of Maine.

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