PORTLAND — The embattled Baxter Academy for Technology and Science is moving forward with the appointment of school leadership in the wake of the termination of its executive director, a lawsuit against the school, and a call for a state investigation into its authorization to operate.
Last week, the charter school’s board announced that it has hired Michele LaForge, a math and science teacher at Freeport High School, as head of school.
“I think what we saw in her was someone who represented the qualities that we are looking for in our teachers, as well as had the passion and capacity to lead,” said Allison Crean Davis, co-chairwoman of the board.
LaForge said she wasn’t looking to leave her job in Freeport when she was approached by Baxter, but the opportunity to build a school from the ground up with a diversity of students was very enticing.
“I have been in education for 10 years and have been in leadership positions for eight of those years, but to start from the beginning and to really have a say in the vision and what is really important is very exciting,” she said last week.
“The other thing I found really exciting when I talked to the board was how committed they were to a certain kind of learning, student-driven, inquiry-driven learning that often goes along with STEM education,” LaForge continued. “But the education is not just about math and science; there will be arts, English, history and they have already forged all of these relationships in the community that will connect with the curriculum.”
LaForge said her “overarching personal plan” is to eliminate artificial boundaries, which she says are the greatest enemy at public schools. She said closing the door to parents and the community takes away the opportunity for students to learn from those groups, to create an “authentic learning environment.”
“The doors (to Baxter) will be open,” she promised. “We will be Skyping with classes in other countries, forging mutually beneficial partnerships with local businesses like Portland Stage, and anyone else we might encounter. …The more the merrier.”
LaForge said she will remain at Freeport High School until the end of the school year, but she will also be helping Baxter hire the rest of its leadership team and teachers as it prepares to open this fall.
She said she wants to ensure parents of perspective students that the school is not an “alternative school” with “wacky” teachers. Its goal, she said, is to prepare students for post-secondary education, not to give them an education they can’t use in the real world.
“The students will still have a transcript that will get them into Yale. We want to make sure that we don’t do things so wacky that (students) can’t live in the world,” LaForge said. “We will be hiring from the same pool of teachers that every state in the school is drawing from. They are not wacky people, they are all Maine State Certified.”
Davis said the school received more 200 applications from teachers and hopes to have hired them by mid-May.
“We are on a six-week schedule right now in terms of scheduling and interviewing folks,” she said.
Davis said she and the rest of the directors are unsure whether the search for a new executive director will continue, LaForge will perform many of the requirements of someone in that role.
Last month, John Jaques, Baxter’s founder and former executive director, was fired because of what the board said was a “pattern of mismanagement.” Jaques has sued the school for defamation.
Davis said said she believes the suit will soon be settled. There are still some papers to go back and forth between the lawyers, she said, but “everyone is going to be able to move beyond that very, very soon.”
The school also hopes to move beyond Portland Mayor Michael Brennan’s call for an investigation of Baxter, which followed the fallout between Jaques and the board.
On March 22, Brennan asked Maine Attorney General Janet Mills to ascertain whether there was a pattern of mismanagement at Baxter and whether the state Charter School Commission adequately reviewed the school’s application prior to granting it permission to open.
Mills declined to investigate Baxter and pointed to the Maine Commission on Charter Schools for further answers to Brennan’s questions. As of Monday, there has been no response from the commission.
The board responded by inviting Brennan to discuss his concerns. As of Monday, Davis said, Brennan had not accepted the offer.
“We felt pretty confident that we could answer the questions he raised in his letter to the attorney general in a meeting instead of having to do something as drastic as an investigation,” she said. “We haven’t heard from him, but the offer stands and we are willing to sit down and review those questions.”
Baxter Academy in Portland has hired Michele LaForge, currently a math teacher at Freeport High School, as its head of school. LaForge said she plans to merge the school’s focus on science and technology education with traditional humanities courses to give students a “real-world” education.