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State gives high marks to Portland charter school

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State gives high marks to Portland charter school

PORTLAND — A charter school that opened this fall in the city is as "good as it gets," according to a review from the state's Charter School Commission.

Baxter Academy for Technology and Science received generally positive feedback in a two-page report approved Dec. 3 by the Maine Charter School Commission, a development that has pleased school administrators.

"I was over the moon," Head of School Michele LaForge said. "I thought it was extraordinary, and I was very pleased to be able to have them see what I see every day."

The school, which opened in early September to 126 students, was rated on six criteria: social and academic climate, parent and community engagement, financial performance and sustainability, school board performance, student academic proficiency and growth, and adequacy of facilities maintenance.

The report was compiled by commission Chairwoman Jana Lapoint and members John Bird and Ande Smith. It provides glowing reviews in most categories, with the exception of school board performance, the high cost of the property lease at 54 York St., and student growth, the latter of which was caused by a lack of testing data.

The report states that standardized "testing is just beginning to get underway," along with internal testing. Likewise, a school-wide data collection system is "not up and running yet, but is expected to be completed in December."

Baxter's board "appears cohesive," but needs to post meeting minutes and announcements "in a timely manner," according to the report.

The academy scored well on the other criteria. The report called the social and academic climate as “good as it gets," adding that teachers and students seem highly motivated.

"Students reiterated often how glad they were to be at Baxter," the report said.
"There is (an) obvious strong connection of respect between teachers and students."

The report also cited a high level of parental engagement. At a recent open house, "over 90 percent of parents were in attendance," it said.

The report, which was completed within the first 90 days of the school's operations – as required by law, will be followed by annual reports every spring, which will guide the commission on whether to renew the school's charter in five years.

Baxter Academy had a rocky start.

In March, the school's board ousted the former executive director, lawsuits were threatened, and there were calls from Mayor Michael Brennan and state legislators for the school to be investigated, according to previous reports.

Those issues were settled and the school received approval from the Maine Charter School Commission in May.

LaForge, who was hired in March, agreed the school's initial steps were unsteady and well publicized.

"It's always hard to start something new," she said Dec. 5. "It was very normal, but it got built up to epic proportions."

Now, however, the school has hit its stride and word has gotten out, she said. The school receives an average of 10 to 15 enrollment inquiries per week, and a recent open house was attended by 60 families. The school has scheduled another open house for 5:30-7 p.m., Wednesday, Dec. 11.

The school is very similar to those within the public school system, said LaForge, a former math teacher who served as head of the math department at Freeport High School. Baxter Academy, as a public charter school, she said has more flexibility in terms of curriculum, which allows students to focus on project-based learning.

Baxter is one of five charter schools in the state. Charter schools are public schools that operate independently of local school districts, but much of their funding is derived from money funneled away from traditional public schools.

Maine was the 41st state to allow charter schools after Gov. Paul LePage signed them into law in June 2011.

Ben McCanna can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or bmccanna@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna.