FAIRFIELD — Robert Grant, one of the first students graduating from the state’s first charter school, used to be the kind of kid who punched people.

A couple of years ago, as a sophomore at Lawrence High School, he would wait patiently outside the school bus, or near a doorway, until the boy he was targeting came along. Then, without any warning, Grant would punch him in the face. Once, the kid he wanted to punch wasn’t available, so he punched the kid’s brother instead.

Grant thought he had a good reason for the violence, he said Thursday from the campus of his new school, the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences. The school graduates 10 students today, its first. 

In each case, the person Grant attacked had either been in a fight with, or had made fun of Grant’s younger brother, Colie, whose Asperger’s syndrome, a disorder on the autism spectrum, made him an easy target for bullies.

“I was protective of my younger brother, like, really badly,” he said, wearing a T-shirt that said “fear nothing,” rarely showing emotion as he answered questions about his past.

Grant, 18, is of average size, but his frequent scowl and intense eyes can be intimidating. When talking, where most people would smile, there would be a tug at one corner of his mouth, and nothing else.

While Grant’s protective motivations might inspire a certain amount of sympathy, the fights, which his mother said began in seventh grade, weren’t helping anyone — not his brother, not the children he punched, and certainly not Grant.

His mother, Jennifer Grant, said the fights escalated and Grant’s attitude worsened, until she lost control.

“All he knew was that he liked to fight,” she said.

Even when Grant wasn’t fighting, he wasn’t on a path toward success because, he said, he just didn’t care about school. A couple of times a month, he would skip class and stay home.

His career aspirations were nonexistent.

“Literally, nothing,” he said. “I had not a clue.”

When he did his homework at all, he waited until the last possible minute. Sometimes, he said, his parents did it for him, part of what allowed him to scrape by with scores in the mid to low 70s.
But other typical indicators of a troubled life were absent.

He had no substance abuse or legal troubles, with the exception of a restraining order filed against him by one of the kids he’d attacked. And, he said, he felt like his parents were there for him.

“I still love them to death, even if we are battling,” he said.

Grant’s recurring attacks netted him a series of school suspensions, culminating in what should have been an expulsion. But expulsion would have made him ineligible for other public schools in Maine, so his mother asked Lawrence administrators to allow her to work out another schooling option.

Administrators from MEANS and Lawrence High School talked, agreeing the academy might give Grant a new start.

‘A chip on his shoulder’

Troy Frost, co-director at the academy, said students seek out the charter school’s agriculture-based, hands-on curriculum for a variety of reasons. Some, like Grant, don’t do well in a traditional school environment. Others see it as a way to get a jump-start on a career in farming or forestry, a focus at the charter school.

Good Will-Hinckley was a 121-year-old residential school that served at-risk young people until the core operations on its sprawling 2,450-acre campus closed the summer of 2009 because of financial problems. It reopened in September 2011 with 40 students as the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences and got its charter designation in 2012.

When Grant began taking classes at the academy in 2011, some things improved almost immediately.

He developed a friendship with instructor Brenda Poulin who he said he recognized right away was a nice person.

“The teachers actually associate with you,” Grant said. “They’re actually your friends.”

He stopped missing classes, and developed a near-perfect attendance record, but there were still signs of trouble, including another fist fight.

“When he first came here, he had a chip on his shoulder,” Frost said.

Grant, who had no agriculture-related career goals, also had little interest in the agricultural curriculum, which had him helping to construct a compost bin, managing a tree plot and interning at local farms.

His mother said Grant’s attitude and efforts began to improve gradually, but Frost said one pivotal event in August stood out.

During an orientation for new students, Grant lost his balance during a team-building exercise. He reached out, trying to break his fall, but broke his arm instead.

Grant, displaying scars running along both sides of his forearm, said the pain was “nice,” by which he meant intense.

Frost said that, as Grant’s body went into shock, he was pale, but stoic.

“He’s the toughest kid I’ve ever seen,” he said. “Most kids would have flipped.”

Instead, as an ambulance rushed toward him, Grant held a phone in his good hand, explaining to his mother why he suddenly needed his medical insurance information.

“I think he gained a lot of other kids’ respect that day,” Frost said.

Frost said the injury was a concern because it left Grant out of classes for weeks, an interruption of routine that, among less dedicated students, can lead to their dropping out of school altogether.

But Grant returned with a new determination to graduate, gaining, in one year, four grade levels in vocabulary, language mechanics and reading skills, the areas that his entrance assessment showed needed the most work.

The ability of the academy to motivate students like Grant, one of 10 students who will graduate at 5 p.m. today, will play a role in its continued existence as a state-approved charter school.

Next month, the Maine Charter School Commission will judge whether the academy has lived up to its promise to offer an effective alternative education.

Frost said he is optimistic about the evaluation, which is based on students’ academic performance, attendance and plans for continued education or jobs.

Grant is an example of the effectiveness of the academy, Frost said.

Grant and his mother agreed that without the academy, he would have dropped out of school altogether, a situation they say has happened to some of his old friends.

“He would have been a bum,” she said.

Grant has also matured in other ways — he doesn’t get into fights, he’s taken a job with a local retailer, and he has a career goal of attending the Maine Criminal Justice Academy and becoming a police officer.

And Frost said Grant even cracks a smile now and then — depending on who’s watching.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
[email protected]

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