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Charter school debate flares back up in Portland as Baxter Academy begins accepting applications

Posted Jan. 02, 2013, at 5:04 p.m.
John Jaques, executive director of the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science charter school in Portland.
John Jaques, executive director of the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science charter school in Portland. Buy Photo

PORTLAND, Maine — Portland’s first public charter school began accepting applications Tuesday, providing the institution with another milestone in its long march to a Sept. 3 opening.

The city’s mayor, however, maintained his vocal opposition to the school, saying it will siphon dollars away from established public high schools in the area, and that initiatives he’s spearheading in 2013 — gathering industry leaders and research institutions into collaboratives with the Portland Public Schools — render the new charter school redundant.

Mayor Michael Brennan said Wednesday he plans to seek between $35,000 and $40,000 from the Portland Development Corp. to help launch his long-promised “Research Triangle” cluster of education, research and technology institutions. But he said the new charter Baxter Academy for Technology and Science is not being looked at for participation in the collaborative. Rather, the mayor said his Research Triangle, which will include the Portland Public Schools, further makes the new charter unnecessary.

The mayor also said he plans to advocate for new legislation that would change the way charter schools in Maine are funded in an effort to stem the diversion of local property tax dollars toward the charters.

In addition to Baxter Academy, charter schools approved by the state include the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Fairfield and Cornville Regional Charter School.

In its first 24 hours of accepting applications — primarily through its website — Baxter Academy has received about 30, Executive Director John Jaques said during a Wednesday morning event at the 54 York St. building where the school will be located.

Jaques said he hopes to have 160 students — 80 freshmen and 80 sophomores — enrolled in the school when it begins classes in nine months. Students are chosen by a lottery system if there are more applicants than spaces, and there are no entrance examinations.

Baxter Academy has yet to hire any teachers.

Brianna Kellihor, 13, of Gorham, one of the early applicants, has been homeschooled since the third grade, and hopes to be in Baxter Academy’s first class of freshmen next fall.

“I’ve been very happy with my homeschooling,” Kellihor said. “It’s provided for individualized learning. I’ve learned about everything from psychology to herbology. … And I’m hoping Baxter Academy will provide that same type of environment.”

Andrew Rosenstein, owner of Portland Apple computer service company TechPort, and Chris Jones, a current Wentworth Institute of Technology student and member of the academy board, were both on-hand Wednesday to tout the hands-on, project-based approach seen as one of the new charter school’s major selling points.

Jones said the smaller class sizes — the school will cap enrollment at 320 students after four years of classes are admitted — will allow students and faculty the agility to keep up with new scientific breakthroughs and technology.

Rosenstein said the project focus — students will fold core subjects such as math and English into larger initiatives, such as designing toys or robotics — will help students prepare for careers as creative problem-solvers.

Jaques said the school hopes to partner with higher education institutions, like the nearby University of Southern Maine, as well as other business and research leaders in the area to give students real-world exposure and demonstrate the relevance of their classroom work.

But as it has been since it was proposed, Baxter Academy is still dogged by vocal opposition from Portland’s top publicly elected official.

Mayor Michael Brennan had urged the Maine Charter School Commission, which is in charge of approving or denying new schools under a 2011 state law, to turn down Baxter Academy, in part because he said it would siphon money from other public schools in the area and that the new charter would provide students with little they wouldn’t get from those previously existing high schools.

The proposed Portland charter school overcame the mayor’s objections and received approval, but only after delays in the process forced academy officials to move their opening date forward by a year, from the fall of 2012 to the fall of 2013.

In late November, Brennan brought together about 30 representatives from area research, business and higher education institutions to discuss creation of his long envisioned “Research Triangle,” a widespread collaboration the mayor hopes will replicate the types of innovative economy clusters seen along the Route 128 corridor in Massachusetts and in Silicon Valley in California.

Brennan is courting many of the same organizational partners for his initiative as Jaques is for Baxter Academy: USM, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, Maine College of Art and Southern Maine Community College, among others.

The mayor — who will seek between $35,000 and $40,000 from the Portland Development Corp. as start-up and seed money to launch the collaborative — also is proposing a related Portland Educational Partnership to evaluate education in the city from early childhood through entry into the workforce.

But rather than seeing the new Baxter Academy as a player in those initiatives, Brennan said he believes those collaboratives make a local charter school redundant.

“I’m still opposed to the charter school,” Brennan said Wednesday. “I don’t think it’s necessary in Portland. I think it’s just ultimately going to be a huge cost to Portland taxpayers and surrounding communities. … I’ve sat through [Baxter Academy] presentations. I think they’ve greatly oversold the potential of what their benefits might be.”

Brennan said that the Portland Public Schools estimate that for every city student that attends Baxter Academy or another charter school, the local school district will have to pay the charter school about $10,000 of Portland property tax money. In public school districts that receive larger state subsidies, larger portions of those charter school tuition bills will be paid by the state, but he said Portland is only reimbursed for about 15 percent of its school costs by the Department of Education.

“I’m going to be working with [Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland] and the Legislature on a different way to fund charter schools if in fact they continue to exist,” said Brennan, who also lamented the lack of local public influence on charter schools where local public dollars are being expended.

But Jaques said the benefit of a school like Baxter Academy in the Greater Portland area is that it can incorporate many of the strengths of other local public schools and make them available to a wider audience. He noted that a student in Yarmouth or Gorham, for instance, doesn’t benefit from the innovative programs being offered in some of the Portland schools, or vice versa.

He said that of the 30 student applicants so far, only about 20-25 percent are Portland residents, and one applicant is from as far away as Alna. Jaques noted that each public school district that must pay to educate a student at an unaffiliated charter school would have had to pay to educate that student locally as well.

“We’re taking some of the best practices of [Maine School of Science and Mathematics] in Limestone, we’re taking some of the best practices of the [Maine Learning Technology Initiative] and we’re taking some of the best practices of Casco Bay High School and putting them together in one school for everybody in greater Portland,” Jaques said. “Yarmouth High School does a wonderful job of technology integration. … Casco Bay High School does a wonderful job of expeditionary learning. What we’re offering is unique.”

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