By John Jaques
As executive director of the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, I would like to set the record straight and dispel some of the myths surrounding public charter schools in Maine.
Presently Maine has three approved public charter schools: the first two will open this fall, the Maine Academy for Natural Sciences in Hinkley and the Cornville School in Cornville (both near Skowhegan).
The third approved school is the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science in Portland, which will open in September 2013.
First, we call them public charter schools for good reason: these schools are public, open to all students and publicly financed with taxpayer money. Parents do not pay tuition to a charter school; the sending school district pays the charter school for each student enrolled.
Charter schools have no entrances exams and are designed to serve students of all ability levels. Charter schools allow parents who can’t afford private school a choice in how their children are educated. Charter schools are not “magnet schools”—a magnet school has entrance requirements and takes only top performing students.
The Maine School of Mathematics and Science in Limestone is Maine’s only public magnet school. It is not a charter school. Baxter Academy for Technology and Science will be a public charter school, and that is an important distinction.
Charter schools are not a Republican idea or a Democratic idea. In these times of partisan squabbling, charter schools are one of the few bi-partisan issues of agreement. Political support for charter schools is widespread: Maine is the 41st state to authorize charter schools, and both Mitt Romney and President Obama are both strong supporters of charter schools.
President Obama established the week of May 6-12 as National Charter School Week. The president said: “Whether created by parents and teachers or community and civic leaders, charter schools serve as incubators of innovation in neighborhoods across our country… matched by strong accountability and high standards… successful schools can serve as models of reform for other public schools. In an economy where knowledge is our most valuable asset, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity—it is an imperative. Our children only get one chance at an education, and charter schools demonstrate what is possible when states, communities, teachers, parents and students work together.”
While serving as governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney worked hard to expand the role of charter schools—with great results. Governor Romney’s web site states: “Improving education in America is a priority for Mitt. He knows what can be accomplished when governors are empowered to reform their education systems, when education entrepreneurs are given the freedom to innovate, when teachers are rewarded for boosting student achievement, and when students are empowered to select a school or education program that meets their needs. Americans have long been known for their creativity, ingenuity and bold vision for our country, and this attitude must apply to our education system.”
Under Maine law, several layers of safeguards have been put in place to ensure that charter schools succeed and to guard against those that don’t. A school is granted a charter, which is a legally binding performance agreement. Charter schools can be closed if they do not meet performance agreements, unlike a non-charter public school.
The Maine Charter School Commission monitors school performance on an annual basis. High-performing public charter schools have lower dropout rates because students receive more individual attention, which is key to keeping kids in schools. Massachusetts has had public charter schools for over 10 years and has some of the most outstanding charter schools in the nation.
Dr. Katherine Merseth, director of Teacher Education Programs at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, has done extensive research on high-performing public charter schools. She has been on the Advisory Board of the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science since it’s conception in 2011.
Other states, such as California, have had long-term success with charter schools, including the highly innovative High Tech High in San Diego. Successful charter schools come in all shapes and sizes; some are themed based, some are not.
At Baxter Academy, we will handpick our teachers, not our students. Each student has the same opportunity to attend Baxter Academy when doors open in September 2013. We welcome all students throughout Southern Maine to apply. If there are more applications than spots available, then students will be selected through a blind lottery system.
Our high school is designed to provide our graduates with the tools needed to succeed in the challenging fields of science, technology, engineering and math, all areas of critical importance in our national economy. We understand how important teachers are to our success—great teachers make great schools. We will hire only the best teachers, and we will support them with the latest technological tools.
Great teachers in a small school setting means more individualized attention—technology helps even the least engaged student get involved in their own learning. Our instructional design model includes extensive use of digital media and student laptops in a project-based setting.
While the largest part of our school funding comes from public funds, a significant portion will also need to come from private donations, from individuals, businesses and foundations. As our school is run by a Maine-based 501(c)(3) non-profit, all donations are fully tax deductible as a charitable contribution.
The Maine legislation did not provide any taxpayer money to support the start-up operations of public charter schools. Baxter Academy has begun the hard work of community fundraising. Getting financial support is impossible without a charter school team that firmly believes in the school’s mission and can convey a heartfelt commitment to give back to the community.
We are committed to having our school give back to the communities of Greater Portland. Our students will provide local businesses and non-profits with much-needed tech support through volunteerism and internships.
One of the most exciting opportunities presented by the new charter school law is that charter schools can be established by the community and can represent the wants and needs of parents. Baxter Academy has a specific focus on serving students who show an early interest in science, technology, engineering and math, which just so happen to be the very skills employers are demanding for high-salary technology jobs.
But charter schools can also focus on the performing arts for students whose passions run more toward dance, theater and music. How many parents wish there was a school committed to inspiring the very thing their own children find inspiring?
Choice is good.
John Jaques, M.Ed. is executive director of the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (207) 200-6882.