March 27, 2013

Bill Nemitz: A hunger to excel trumps controversy

You'd think they'd all be in full retreat by now. You'd think all those parents hoping to enroll their kids in the Baxter Academy of Technology and Science would take one look at the turmoil surrounding the proposed charter school in Portland and run, not walk, back to the safety of the nearest public high school.

Yet there Tammy Gagne and her son Alec stood Tuesday before the Maine Charter School Commission.

Reneging? Try begging.

"Please, please, please give (Alec), and all the other kids who want this opportunity, a chance for something better," Tammy Gagne implored the seven-member commission.

Echoed Alec, an eighth-grader at Westbrook Middle School, "I need Baxter so that I can start to pave my way to what I want to do."

More on Alec in a minute. First, let's assess the recent damage to his dream high school.

John Jaques, Baxter Academy's founder and erstwhile director, is gone -- fired on March 7 for what the board of directors called a "pattern of mismanagement." The board also sued Jaques, alleging he failed to relinquish online access to intellectual property.

Jaques, claiming the board jettisoned him as a precondition for a $250,000 donation by the father of a prospective Baxter Academy teacher, counter-sued the board for defamation.

Then, last week, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan -- a longtime opponent of Baxter Academy -- got into the act. In a letter to Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, Brennan asked for a top-to-bottom investigation of the school and the immediate suspension of Baxter's efforts to obtain an operating contract from the Charter School Commission.

All of which prompted the commission to summon Baxter officials to Augusta this week to provide an explanation of what the heck is going on -- not to mention an assessment of the school's readiness to open come Sept. 3.

Which brings us back to Tammy and Alec Gagne, who showed up along with seven other prospective students and their parents -- all beseeching the commission to not pull the plug on their not-quite-yet-a-high-school.

Some might call that willful blindness -- a hope so fervent for an educational alternative to their various hometown schools that they don't know an unfolding disaster when they see one.

But before we file this whole mess under "crash and burn" -- and based on Tuesday's testimony, reports of Baxter Academy's death appear to be greatly exaggerated -- one nugget of information cannot be ignored:

Before the brouhaha, Baxter officials told the commission, the school had 161 letters of intent from parents and students. Despite all the negative headlines, that number now stands at 156, with an additional 12 names still on a waiting list.

Why the persistence?

Let's let young Alec tackle that one.

Reading with confidence and poise from a letter he wrote to the commission, Alec explained that his typical class at Westbrook Middle School lasts 80 minutes -- usually a lesson by the teacher followed by an in-class worksheet or textbook assignment.

"One of my friends and I usually take 10 minutes to do this paper -- and then we are told to do something quietly until class is over," Alec explained. "This usually consists of reading, doing some personal writing or completing an extra-credit assignment that goes over what we just learned."

For the record, Alec has been in the Westbrook school system's program for gifted and talented students since grade 3. But in an interview after Tuesday's hearing, his proud mother said that's not nearly as impressive as it could be.

"On paper, my son is thriving," said Tammy Gagne, who writes books about children and animals for a living. "But I see him come home disinterested – and I mean that in the literal definition of the word. ... He does the assignments. He checks the box."

(Continued on page 2)

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