I visited the new Baxter Academy for Technology and Science in Portland last summer, as people were scurrying to complete renovations and preparing for the arrival of their first wave of students. A few weeks ago, I went back to the school and walked into a beehive of academic activity and energy.
Baxter Academy now has 130 students, from 38 Maine towns. By the fall, it will have 230. It’s housed in a fairly small building, reflecting the fact that charter schools have to build their own schools, without public support. Despite its size, however, it was easy to see why parents are sending their kids to Baxter, and why students want to be there.
Baxter Academy is clearly a place of high hopes, high aspirations and experimentation with different ways of both teaching and learning.
I was there on a Friday, which is set aside each week for student-initiated projects. One group was building an underwater robotic probe. Others were working on computerized lathes, elaborate artwork over the doors of each classroom or innovative furniture designs.
The school’s philosophy seemed to be embodied in one of its teachers, Jonathan Amory, who has an infectious enthusiasm for the idea that teaching students how to learn is more important than preparing them for tests. “In the world these kids live in, with online connections to vast storehouses of data, we don’t need them to memorize everything,” Amory said. “We need them to learn how to solve problems, be autonomous and inventive, and work in teams.”
One of the complaints about Baxter Academy and other charter schools is that they are somehow skimming off public education’s best students. The students I saw at Baxter, however, didn’t fit that description: 19 percent of them are special-needs kids. Others are looking for more advanced science, technology and mathematics. And some are simply kids who don’t do well within the structure of traditional public schools. They’re like square pegs that we’re constantly trying to jam into round holes.
Public schools are great for most kids, but not everyone, primarily because people learn in so many different ways. Some are better at abstractions than others. Some are verbal or visual. Some learn quickly or more slowly. Others can’t sit still in a classroom, or learn best by themselves or in small groups.
Many of those kids can endure public schools, and even do well. But no matter how hard we try, they don’t flourish, and many eventually drop out or move onto other alternatives, including home schooling.
I was one of those square-peg kids. My school did everything it could, but it couldn’t do enough, and I walked away just a few months into ninth grade to learn at my own pace, from books and newspapers at the library and from the mills and construction sites of central Maine. That is a path that I do not recommend to anyone, let alone a teenager.
I remain, nonetheless, an unabashed supporter of public education, in no small part because our 8-year-old is flourishing in Freeport’s public schools, where we’ve been blessed with amazing and dedicated teachers.
The idea of public education is a noble and important one, and democracies become fragile when they do not have the educated citizenry it produces. But the pressures on public education today are unprecedented, as the demands on students and parents grows and the pace of change accelerates.
No matter how dedicated our teachers, or how much we invest in public education, we’ll never have one system that can accommodate everyone. We have to continually experiment with different strategies for some kids, geared to the way they learn.
That’s where charter schools fit in. They aren’t for everyone, and they won’t replace mainstream public education. But they are important laboratories where new ideas and teaching strategies can be explored, and eventually shared with the larger public education system.
It’s easy to sympathize with the apprehension that many educators and teachers unions feel about charter schools, including how to fund them without raiding already scarce public school funds. One way to resolve that concern is to view charter schools as laboratories for improving public education that should be funded directly by the state, rather than by local schools.
The visit made me wonder why we have to choose between public schools and experimental charter schools. Perhaps they’re simply different components of the 21st century public education system we all want. I concluded that it’s not only possible to support both, it’s essential.
Alan Caron, a Waterville native, is president of Envision Maine, a nonprofit organization working to promote Maine’s next economy, and co-author of an upcoming book titled “Maine’s Next Economy.” Email at email@example.com.