August 2, 2013

Maine charter school helps turn a life around

Among the 10 students in Friday's first group of graduates is a young Maine man who had struggled at a traditional school.

By MATT HONGOLTZ-HETLING Morning Sentinel

FAIRFIELD – Robert Grant, part of the first batch of students graduating from Maine's first charter school, used to be the kind of kid who punched people.

click image to enlarge

Maine Academy of Natural Sciences senior Robert Grant, part of the first batch of students graduating from Maine's first charter school, seems to be deep in thought during rehearsal for Friday's commencement.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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 warning, Grant would punch him in the face.

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.

In each case, the person Grant attacked had 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 with the words "fear nothing" and 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, when most people would smile, there would be a tug at one corner of his mouth and nothing else.

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

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 school and stay home.

His career aspirations were nonexistent. "Literally, nothing," he said. "I had not a clue."

Grant's attacks drew 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 the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences and Lawrence High School talked, agreeing the academy might give Grant a new start.

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.

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 in 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 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. He stopped missing classes and developed a near-perfect attendance record.

But there were still signs of trouble, including another fistfight.

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

Grant had little interest in the agricultural curriculum, and his mother said Grant's attitude and efforts began to improve gradually. But Frost said one pivotal event a year ago 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, and broke his arm.

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."

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 them to drop out of school.

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.

Grant, one of 10 students who will graduate at 5 p.m. Friday, 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 becoming a police officer.

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

 

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be contacted at 861-9287 or at:

mhhetling@mainetoday.com

 

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