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Portland's First Charter School Opens its Doors
09/05/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

Portland's first charter school welcomed its inaugural class of ninth- and tenth-graders today. It's a day that some students and parents worried might never come, as Baxter Academy for Technology and Science went through leadership changes, had its finances scrutinized by state officials and faced opposition from prominent politicians. Jay Field was at Baxter this morning, as teachers and students began building a culture to support the school's unconventional approach to learning.

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Head of School Michele LaForge stands on the curb at a little after 8:00 a.m., in a steady rain, waiting. The first of three school buses is due any moment at Baxter's building on the edge of the Old Port, and LaForge is thinking out loud about the days and weeks ahead.

"We have a lot to figure out," she says. "I mean, the hard part was doing it in a vacuum in the summer. Once you have a kid in front of you, you build that relationship."

"Hi....come on in!" she says as the bus arrives. LaForge offers students cover under a large umbrella, as they file off the bus. She thanks the bus driver.

"Thank you!" she says to the driver. "You guys have an awesome day," he responds. "It's starting off real good."

Baxter's 132 students come from 35 different towns. Critics of charter schools often worry that they'll "cherry pick" the best students from nearby public schools. But Baxter's population is a mix. There are top students, and kids who've struggled in traditional public schools. As many as 20 students have special needs and individualized education plans. Another 20 were home schooled and 15 speak a first language other than English.

All of them get a round of applause, as they enter the building for the first time and gather in the main hall for the first school assembly. After the call to order, the teachers introduce themselves.

Mo Nunez, Baxter's special education director, tells the students a story. He was taking care of a friend's daughter. The friend gave Nunez a car seat. Nunez, who's 36 and doesn't have kids, put the car seat in the back and had the child sit next to him up front.

"And we go, like, two feet, and the girl says, 'I think I'm supposed to be sitting in the back on the car seat. And, uh, I did not have any idea that that's how that works."

Nunez stopped the car and moved the girl and child seat to the back.

"This girl is four years old and I'm 36 years old. And I still had a lot to learn from her," he says. "I think it's pretty scary to come to a place that doesn't have a history behind it yet, and I think you guys are pretty rad for actually going out there and doing that. We're going to be learning a great deal from you guys."

The main focus of Baxter's curriculum will be science, technology and math. But there will also be social studies, English and art. The school's unifying thread will be the way students learn about all these subjects.

"It's written up in the charter - part of the mission of the school is to get students engaged in projected learning, problem-based learning," says Bobby Shaddox, who will teach social studies.

Shaddox came to Baxter from another charter school with an experiential learning focus, High Tech High in San Diego. A major theme in his classes this fall will be democracy.

"So we're going to do a project - right now it's called The Democracy Project - where students explore problems, or hurdles, in the community. And they will reach out and team up with some kind of organization and put forth a plan to solve that problem."

But first, students and teachers have more practical problems to solve. In a second-floor classroom, students are putting together a table - just a fraction of the roughly 7,000 pounds of furniture these teenagers will be assembling, with their teachers, in teams.

Ninth-grader Briana Keliehor, who's from Gorham, went to public school in Oxford Hills through third grade, before being home schooled.

"If you're interested in something, you'll retain more of the knowledge," she says. "Where, if it's from a textbook, I'm not going to remember as much as something I'm really interested in and want to learn about."

During her years at Baxter, Keliehor hopes to build a 100- to 200-square-foot house on a trailer. She says drawing up plans for the structure will teach her about architecture and design. Building it will help her develop her math skills. And applying for grants, she says, will give her plenty of opportunities to work on her reading and writing.


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