March 27, 2013

Bill Nemitz: A hunger to excel trumps controversy

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And the gifted-and-talented program? Doesn't that help?

Like every year, Gagne said, "we met with them at the beginning of September when school started. And I don't believe that he has really had a project to speak of since the year began."

This for a kid who read 360 books, mostly on his own, when he was in second grade. A kid who by age 6 was beating 13-year-olds in a chess club down at the local library. A kid who last summer learned American Sign Language – for fun.

Contacted at Westbrook school headquarters on Wednesday, Superintendent Marc Gousse expressed surprise at Gagne's dissatisfaction.

"I've never spoken to Tammy or her son," Gousse said. "I would love to speak with them, because frankly this was not on my radar."

(Looking back, Gagne concedes that "perhaps I should have been making a little more noise over my disappointment.")

Gousse said he has no problem with Baxter Academy or any other public charter school that might draw students (and the state funding that goes with them) away from his district – provided those schools are held to the same standards and benchmarks as all other public schools.

"It's very healthy for kids to have options – there's nothing wrong with that," said Gousse. "If it works well for that student, have at it."

And what about Westbrook's gifted-and-talented program?

According to Peter Lancia, Westbrook's director of teaching and learning, the program serves about 175 students (out of about 2,500) from kindergarten through grade 12. It consists of two dedicated teachers -- one focusing on the humanities, the other on science, technology, engineering and math -- and a state-reimbursed budget of $145,000.

Some, but not all, of those students receive direct, "pull-out" instruction from the two specialists, Lancia said, while others get their educational boost via the classroom teacher's "ability to customize for every child."

Which, in a class of 20 or more students, is far easier said than done.

Alec, to be sure, has had some "wonderful teachers" over the years, his mother said. One was so good that author Gagne even dedicated a book to her.

That said, added Gagne, "some of the teachers Alec has had -- I think it's a job to them. And I think being a teacher should be so much more than just a job or something to do to earn your paycheck."

So, with currents political, financial and downright personal swirling around Baxter Academy, Alec Gagne and scores of kids like him watch and wait for what September may -- or may not -- bring.

And as all eyes now turn to the Charter School Commission's final decision, on April 8, we would do well to remember that behind what one Baxter board member rightfully called "so much noise," more than a few young futures hang in the balance.

Let's leave the last word to a kid who's more than earned it.

"I want this school to open so that in class, after I've completed the work, I can continue my learning," Alec told his rapt audience this week. "Not just sitting, waiting for class to be over."


Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:


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