Science and technology charter school proposed for greater Portland

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PORTLAND — The area’s first official charter school is planning to open its doors in 2012.

The Baxter Academy for Technology and Science will be the first high school focused on educating students in science, technology, engineering and math in southern Maine.

It was made possible when Gov. Paul LePage signed a state law in June that allows the creation of charter schools. Another charter school has also been proposed in Skowhegan.

John Jaques, Baxter Academy executive director, said the non-residential school will accept 80 freshman and 80 sophomores next year, followed by an additional 80 freshmen the following two years, for a total population of 320 students.

“We need to be small,” Jaques said. “That’s kind of the point of charter schools.”

Jaques, who has a master’s degree in education and has worked in public schools for 15 years, said until now the only choice for parents looking for science-focused schools has been the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone, a residential magnet school in Aroostook county.

“I think there’s just a real need for (STEM schools) in Maine and there’s a real interest in our area,” Jaques said. “Currently the only choice parents have is to send their child up to the school in Limestone. I’ve talked to numerous parents who struggled with that decision.”

Jaques said the Baxter Academy board is in the process of looking at locations in the greater Portland area and applying for charter school approval from a yet-to-be created state board, overseen by the Maine Department of Education. Part of that application process is creating a charter – the rules by which the school will operate – which will have to be approved by the state board before the school can open.

The rest of the charter school application process is unclear, because the law does not go into effect until Sept. 28. The charter school board will then be created and can approve up to 10 privately operated charter schools in the next 10 years. Public charter schools that will be run through already-existing school districts do not count toward that cap.

Baxter Academy‘s board of directors is made up of an array of education and business professionals, including Shaun Meredith, who worked with former Gov. Angus King on the Maine Learning Technology Initiative; Robert Sanford, a professor and the environmental science chairman at the University of Southern Maine; Katherine Merseth, the director of teacher education programs at Harvard Graduate School of Education; Sarah Skillin-Woodard, the development chairwoman at the St. Lawrence Arts Center in Portland; and several other science and education professionals.

The school will begin accepting applications this fall. The DOE is expected to review the charter application in January.

“If we don’t have enough spots, we’ll hold a lottery in March,” Jaques said.

Acceptance into the school will be first-come, first-served until the maximum number of students is met, and will not be based on merit. However, prospective students will have to write an essay explaining why they want to attend a STEM school.

By law, the charter school cannot accept more than 10 percent of the population of any district. Jaques said as soon as the number of applications hits that threshold, the school will institute the lottery system.

The new law also requires the districts the students would have attended to pay the charter school tuition for those students. Jaques said he expected Baxter Academy’s tuition to be approximately $7,500 per student.

Additional funds for running the school will come from fundraising efforts by trustees and possibly from federal funding specifically for charter schools.

Jaques said it is still too early to tell how transportation of students to and from school will be worked out, but it could involve paying parents to drive groups of students to school in carpools, buses or vans.

He said that despite how politicized charter schools have become, the charter school initiative in this state was supported by politicians on both sides of the aisle.

“One of my pet peeves is that it’s being portrayed incorrectly in the press as a Republican initiative,” he said.

Democratic Reps. Mark Dion and Anne Haskell of Portland, Anne Graham of North Yarmouth, and Sens. Joseph Brannigan, D-Cumberland, and Richard Woodbury, U-Yarmouth, all voted in favor of the bill, along with several other democrats and republicans from across the state.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or Follow her on Twitter: @emilyparkhurst.