January 3, 2013

Flurry of applications for new charter school in Portland

BY NOEL K. GALLAGHER Portland Press Herald

PORTLAND -- More than 30 students applied in the first 24 hours for admission to Portland's new charter school, the Baxter Academy of Technology and Science.

Baxter Academy will have 12 full-time teachers and 160 students in the fall, split between ninth- and 10th-grade students. Online applications became available Jan. 1.

"It's a new era in education," Executive Director John Jaques said at a news conference Wednesday at the school's currently vacant space at 54 York St.

The two-story leased space will be renovated in the spring to build classrooms and create space for the new school. On Wednesday, architectural plans showing the future layout leaned against a wall in the space looking over Commercial Street to Casco Bay.

Jaques said the school offers some after-school programs. No teachers have been hired for the fall yet, he said.

Jaques said he's raised $100,000 through fundraising and has a $500,000 line of credit. He expects to get another $1.5 million in state funding that will follow the students.

Under Maine's charter school law, up to 10 charter schools will be allowed in the state over the next decade. Maine became the 41st state to allow charter schools when the law passed in 2011. Several of Maine's charter schools are already open.

A charter school is a public school that receives public funding but is created and operated by parents, teachers and community leaders. They are largely exempt from the rules and regulations of the area's school district.

Supporters say charters are a good fit for niche students and can offer a tailored curriculum that public schools can't. Opponents say many charter schools fail because of faulty business plans, and that they can hurt public schools by siphoning off students and public funding.

Portland school officials estimate the district will lose up to $10,000 in state funding for every public school student who goes to Baxter instead of a local school.

To counter the lost funding, Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, has said he will propose changing state law to fund charter schools with a separate line item in the budget instead of diverting funding from public school districts. Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, who opposes charter schools, said he supported Alfond's proposed change because of the financial hit to Portland as students go to Baxter.

School board member Kelli Pryor said the school, in addition to an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, also will offer Mandarin language and Chinese culture classes. That, she said, will give students "a global reach."

Parent Kelli Keliehor, who has been home-schooling her 13-year-old daughter, Brianna, said she expects many of the students at Baxter to be former home-schoolers.

"Our children are bored out of their minds in public schools," Keliehor said.

Although home-schooling has been working well for Brianna, it's a lot of work and paying for tutors can add up, she said.

"(Baxter) is going to save me a ton of time and a ton of money," she said.

Brianna said she was looking forward to going to the school.

"It's not the normal route, but it's the route that works for me," she said. "You shouldn't have to have humdrum. You're supposed to be excited."

Jaques said Baxter will follow the Portland schools calendar for its academic year and school breaks. The school plans to add a new ninth-grade class in each of the next two years, eventually resulting in a four-grade high school.

"We are going to increase opportunity and increase expectations for our students," Jaques said. "We will all benefit from this."

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