Parents, educators push for specialized charter schools

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PORTLAND — The Maine Charter School Commission will decide by July 1 which charter schools will open to students in September.

During a public input session Monday night at Deering High School, members of the commission said that the July 1 deadline will allow charter schools 60 days to enroll students.

James Banks, chairman of the commission and member of the state Board of Education, said the commission will issue a request for proposals for charter schools following three public input sessions intended to gauge the state’s education needs.

The Charter School Commission, formed in January, currently is creating criteria to use to authorize charter schools.

The state’s new charter school law, approved last year by the Legislature, allows for the creation of 10 non-district charter schools statewide. School districts also can start their own charter schools that do not count toward the 10-school statewide limit.

Commissioner Donald Mordecai of Scarborough said he expects one or two charter schools to open in September because of the tight turnaround after the approval process.

“The commission is very dedicated to doing this right,” he said.

During the session, parents and educators spoke in support of charter schools and asked commissioners to consider specialized schools as they review applications.

Elliott Burton, a retired teacher from Portland, urged commissioners to support charter schools that move away from traditional testing in favor of teaching philosophies that center on guiding children to ask questions and grow as people.

“There are schools that work like this and it’s exciting for kids. It’s fun to teach because it’s exciting,” he said.

Commissioner William Shuttleworth of Camden said he thinks charter schools will attract teachers “with a pent up desire to do things differently.”

John Jaques, executive director of Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, a proposed charter school in Portland, said he has heard from teachers with Ivy League backgrounds and master’s degrees who want to return to Maine to teach in charter schools where they are afforded more freedom and creativity.

“I’m very pleased to say the pool of applicants is extraordinary,” he said. “… That is a very encouraging sign to the quality of people these schools will attract.”

Amy Carlisle of Falmouth said commissioners should consider online charter schools. She said one of her two daughters attends an online high school and has found a supportive community, and other students could benefit from the flexibility it provides. 

“It is a great school that can meet the needs of many students,” she said.

Meg Kusturin of Gorham said she has always tried to find the best educational fit for her children, whether it was homeschooling, private or public schools. She said students who chose to go to the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone for specialized education must give up community connections at home.

“(My daughter) shouldn’t have to go to a boarding school to study math and science,” she said.

Jonathan Amory, an engineering teacher at Freeport High School and member of the Baxter Academy advisory board, said more science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education is needed to prepare students to work for Maine companies that can’t find enough qualified employees.

“We aren’t preparing kids to go into the new high-tech world,” he said. “A lot of people say we have a jobs crisis. I see that we have a skills crisis.”

Renee Morin of Biddeford urged commissioners to consider not only specialized charter schools, but also those that would provide a solid all-around environment for high achieving students.

“Our brightest students are lacking so much attention and can offer the state so much,” she said.

After the meeting, Jaques said it was encouraging to hear a strong show of support for STEM and specialized education in Maine. He said knowing the July 1 deadline set by the commission will help as he plans for the school’s opening.

Jaques said he has a draft application ready to be refined when the commission issues the request for proposals. If approved, the school will enroll 80 freshmen and 80 sophomores next year, followed by an additional 80 freshmen the following two year for a total of 320 students. A blind lottery will be used if applications exceed available openings. Most students are likely to come from within a 20-mile radius of the school at 54 York St., he said.

Baxter Academy will host an informational meeting for students and parents at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, March 7, on the seventh floor of the Glickman Library and the University of Southern Maine.

Gillian Graham can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @grahamgillian.